Researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that factors such as intelligence, reading and verbal fluency improved in people who learnt a second language at any age.
More than 200 Edinburgh-born individuals were tested in the study, published in the Annals of Neurology, and, whether in their seventies or aged just 11, displayed similar results.
All participants said they could communicate in at least one other language other than English. More than 90 per cent of them learnt the second language before they were 18, the rest learned it after that time.
The study’s findings showed that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly improved cognitive abilities.
The effects were present in both those participants who learned a second language early as well as later in life.
Previous research has suggested that being bilingual could help stave off the onset of dementia by several years.
However the big question has always been whether learning a new language improved an individual’s cognitive function or whether those individuals with superior cognitive abilities were more likely to become bilingual.
According to the Edinburgh researchers, this pattern for improved intelligence and reading found in bilinguals was meaningful and could not be explained by original intelligence.
“These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the ageing brain,” Dr Thomas Bak, from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told reporters.
But Dr Bak admits, while this study helped to pave the way for further research into bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention, his study does raise many new questions; such as whether actively speaking a second language is better than just knowing it.