TUESDAY, Jan. 8, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- A lifetime of speaking two languages may help keep older people's brains sharper, researchers report.
The new study included healthy seniors, aged 60 to 68, who had spoken two languages (bilingual) or just one language (monolingual) since childhood. Their brain activity was monitored as they switched from one mental task to another.
Compared to those who were monolingual, the bilingual seniors were faster at switching from one task to another and used less energy in the frontal parts of their brain when making the switch, according to the study published in the Jan. 9 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
The findings suggest "that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors," study author Brian Gold, of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, said in a news release from the journal.
"Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging," he added.
Gold and his team also tested younger bilingual and monolingual adults and found that, among the young study participants, those who were bilingual did not switch from one task to another more quickly and did not have different patterns of brain activity.
According to John Woodard, an aging expert from Wayne State University in Detroit, "This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively [mentally] stimulating activity -- in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis -- and brain function." Woodard was not involved in the current study.
Gold and colleagues "provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals," Woodward said in the news release.
The study found an association between brain activity in seniors and language skills, but it didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about the aging brain.