Learning a second language has many benefits, not the least of which is improved cognitive ability. If you have an elderly loved one who is considering learning another language, here are some things to consider.
Benefits of learning a language
The benefits of learning another language are both psychological and cognitive. It's been shown by Bialystok and other researchers that learning more than one language helps the brain to resist some of the more common problems that come with dementia and other age-related cognitive issues.
Some researchers theorize that, by learning a second language, the brain learns to "think" its way around problems and this ability becomes key to resisting dementia. According to this theory the physical changes that sometimes occur in the brain as people age may still occur in those who have learned another language but, because the brain has practiced approaching things from new angles, the brain is able to overcome or at least diminish any decrease in function which would normally result from the changes.
You can consider your cognitive reserve like a bank account...
Author Annie Murphy Paul reports in Time magazines that the idea that the brain can experience the physical changes common to old age and continue to function at a high level is termed "cognitive reserve." Researchers Schweizer and others found that, even with substantial brain atrophy, people with large amounts of "cognitive reserve" were less affected by Alzheimer's than those without such cognitive reserves. You can consider your cognitive reserve like a bank account, and the physical changes that occur to your brain as you age like withdrawals. These withdrawals will happen regardless of the size of your cognitive reserve; however, if you have a larger account to start with, then the withdrawals will still leave you with a balance. On the other hand, if you have a small account, then those same withdrawals will leave you cognitively "bankrupt." The researchers also found that learning a second language was a significant deposit in a person's cognitive reserves.
Regardless of the physiological questions, it is uncontroverted that learning an additional language is beneficial in preserving the cognitive abilities that would normally fall prey to old age. Benefits include an increase in reading ability, longer attention spans, and in increase in the ability to focus.
Are you too old to learn a new language?
Many elderly people may feel that, while learning another language may have benefits, they themselves are too old to take advantage of this. Fortunately, this is not the truth! A study led by University of Edinburgh's Dr. Thomas Bak showed that these benefits are still present even when the subject did not learn the language until adulthood. To this end, if you have an elderly loved one who is considering learning a new language (or engaging in some other activity such as playing an instrument, which has also been shown to build the cognitive reserve, you should encourage him or her to do so, regardless of his or her age.
Other benefits of learning a new language
In addition to fighting off the effects of cognitive decline, learning a new language has other benefits as well. First, taking language classes will frequently be a way for the elderly person in your life to get out of the house and meet people. Sometimes the socialization that comes along with taking a language class will be its own reward.
Second, by learning a new language, your elderly loved one will see that he or she is capable of doing difficult things. This will in turn add a dose of self-confidence. The increased confidence will make it more likely that he or she will be willing to step out and try other things.
Another benefit is that learning a new language will be helpful if your elderly loved one decides to spend some time traveling in retirement. While this may not be feasible for all elderly people, the fact is that an ever-growing percentage of people over the age of 65 retain the physical, mental, and financial means to travel. By learning a new language your elderly loved one may find those trips a bit more enjoyable.
Learning a new language will help preserve your elderly loved one's cognitive abilities. Additionally, it will help with self-confidence and may even present an opportunity for increased socialization. It's never too late to start learning a new language--and reaping the benefits of doing so.
Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging? Annals of Neurology 75(6): 959-963. DOI: 10.1002/ana.24158. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ana.24158/full. Last visited Decelber 14, 2015.
Bialystok, E. (2004). Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence from the Simon Task. Psychology and Aging 19(2): 290-303. DOI: 10.1037/0882-79220.127.116.110 American Psychological Association. Available online at http://or.psychology.dal.ca/~klein/cv/BialystokCraikKleinViswanathan2004.pdf Last Visited December 14, 2015.
Fay, Terry. Study Shows Learning a Second Language can Improve Brain Function as We Age. The Unretired. Available at http://www.seniorlifestyle.com/study-shows-learning-second-language-can-delay-dementia/. Last visited December 10, 2015.
Paul, Annie. (June 13, 2012). Want to Prevent Aging? Learn a New Language. Medicine. Time magazine. Available at http://ideas.time.com/2012/06/13/want-to-prevent-agin-learn-another-language/. Last visited December 10, 2015.
Schweizer, T. A., Ware, J., Fischer, C. E., Craik, F. I. M., Bialystok, E. (September 2012). Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer's disease. Cortex 48(8): 991-996. Abstract available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945211001043. Last visited December 14, 2015.