Introduction to Vidi research project: “Language learning never gets old: Foreign language learning as a tool to promote healthy aging”
PI: Merel Keijzer
The world is aging. In Europe alone, more than 20% of citizens will be over the age of 65 by 2025. Aging is seen as “one of the greatest social and economic challenges of the 21st century” (“Ageing Policy”, 2016) and healthy aging research is put high on the agenda. This study presents an innovative anti-aging tool: foreign language learning. Research has singled out factors that promote healthy aging. Amidst these activities, lifelong bilingualism has been found especially “sustained, intense, and all-encompassing” (Bialystok, 2016, p.6). People who speak more than one language are reported to build up cognitive reserve, even delaying the onset of degenerate diseases like Alzheimer’s (Alladi et al., 2013). If found on a large scale, that would make bilingualism a most powerful tool against old-age disorders (Bak, 2016). But no two bilinguals are the same and bilingualism effects are therefore not universally reported, leading to questions regarding its validity (cf. Paap, 2015). In this project, we aim to provide a new impetus to the field of bilingualism but also its applicability in healthy aging, through:
- an epidemiological study that relates individual differences in bilingual experiences to healthy aging outcomes in a sample of more than 12,000 65+ north Netherlanders. Differences include languages or dialects spoken, age at acquisition, intensity of use, and language attitudes (project 1);
- introducing a bilingual experience (foreign language learning) to a functionally monolingual group of healthy seniors and those diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment or experiencing subjective memory problems (project 2) or Late Life Depression/self-reported mood problems (project 3) over the course of 3 months with the possibility to extend to 6 months.
This two-step design is expected to shed new light on two important questions: the nature of the bilingual advantage in old age and how learning a new language after the age of 65 enhances cognitive flexibility and wellbeing levels in healthy and non-healthy elderly. The individual three projects are presented in more detail below:
Project 1: Bilingual Lifelines
To detail cognitive reserve in aging as a function of individual bilingual experiences.
Using the Lifelines Cohort Data of the University Medical Center Groningen, Project 1 focuses on three aging dimensions: 1) Biological aging; Lifelines information on participants’ health status is inspected and the prevalence of diseases and symptoms as well as the age at which they surface set off against the intensity and contexts of bilingualism. All participants are sent a bilingual language background and use questionnaire to chart the specific circumstances under which bilingualism effects emerge; 2) Cognitive aging; the questionnaire data is correlated with the cognitive measures of the Mini mental state examination and Ruff Figural Fluency Test (Ruff, Evans, & Light, 1986) that were already administered for all Lifelines participants; 3) Social aging; sense of wellbeing and prevalence of age-associated depression (Lifelines data: the MINI International Neuropsychiatric Interview, self-assessed quality of life and wellbeing, social support and independence levels (Scholtens et al., 2014) are related with bilingual experiences.
Project 2: Foreign language learning to promote cognitive reserve in healthy and Mild Cognitive Impairment seniors
Floor van den Berg
To assess the effect of foreign language learning on the cognitive reserve of Mild Cognitive Impairment patients (MCI) or elders with subjective memory problems vis-a-vis their neurotypical peers.
This study compares the cognitive flexibility and wellbeing of older adults with MCI or those experiencing subjective memory problems to that of healthy seniors. MCI is considered an intermediate cognitive functioning state in between healthy aging and dementia that is characterized by poor cognitive flexibility (Traykov et al., 2007). Its prevalence among the general elderly population is substantial: 3-19%. This study sets off the effects of a foreign language course (i.e. seniors receiving English as a foreign language training) to those of music training (seniors receiving guitar instruction) or those who participate in creative workshops. Cognitive flexibility outcomes are assessed behaviorally and through eyetracking paradigms.
Project 3: Foreign language learning to promote cognitive flexibility in healthy and Late-Life Depression seniors or those experiencing mood problems
To assess the effect of foreign language learning on the cognitive flexibility of Late-Life Depression (LLD) patients or those who experience subjective mood problems vis-a-vis their healthy peers.
Like MCI, LLD is associated with deficits in cognitive functioning. LLD patients score especially poorly on cognitive flexibility tasks (Butters et al., 2004), believed to originate from hypo-activity in the prefrontal cortex (Mayberg, 1997). Major Depression Disorder (MDD) is typically treated using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aimed at changing unfavorable thinking pattern (Johnco, Wuthrich & Rapee, 2012). This study assesses the effects of a foreign language intervention in relation to other more conventional treatments such as music or creative therapy
Language learning never gets old - implicit and explicit language learning in seniors
Mara is currently working on her PhD project "Language learning never gets old - implicit and explicit language learning in seniors". This project extends the recent work of bilingualism as a possible anti-ageing tool to monolingual seniors by introducing the bilingual experience later in life. Mixed results have been found in the few studies investigating the effects of language training for seniors, most likely due to several pitfalls in their designs Therefore, we developed a new method to overcome these issues. We look into the cognitive effects of language learning in older adulthood using behavioural tasks as well as neuro-imaging. Additionally, the PhD project investigates seniors' language learning needs and wellbeing in regards to foreign language learning for the first time.
Learning to preserve: Foreign language training as a cognitive “vaccine” to prevent old-age disorders?
In this project we assess the effect of a bilingual experience, in terms of a foreign language training, on cognitive flexibility: the ability to change your behaviour and thoughts according to new, changing or unexpected events. Besides that, we evaluate the unique role of foreign language training versus other cognitive training programs or social engagement aspects involved in any training for seniors. We study the changes in the brain as a result of these training programs and focus on cognitive flexibility and the effect on the health of elderly people at risk for depression and cognitive decline.