Across the world people are living increasingly long lives but the increase in life-span can come with a decrease in quality of life. Even healthy older people can experience slower cognitive functioning, such as reduced ability to focus, and poor memory. Language ability is also affected by age, becoming slower and less fluent, and older people can experience more embarrassing failures in word finding. Problems like these can reduce confidence in speaking and can lead to social isolation and loneliness. Our project will investigate two factors that might reduce these problems for older adults: speaking a second language and regular exercise. Although there is evidence that both help with cognitive functioning, very little research has looked at their effects on language. Language function in ageing is especially important for bilinguals who, even when young, can have slower and less fluent speech than monolinguals. Our aim is therefore to test the effects of both physical fitness and being bilingual on language function in healthy ageing. We will compare cognitive and linguistic functioning in young and older English monolinguals and Norwegian-English bilinguals to determine the effect of being bilingual and ageing. We will also run a physical activity study with the older adults in both countries who will take part in a 26 week course of exercise. The physical activity study will examine the benefits of an exercise program designed to increase aerobic fitness compared to a control group doing stretching and yoga. Following the fitness program, we will re-test language and cognitive function to determine the benefits associated with increased fitness for mono- and bilinguals. We will also measure changes in brain structure and function for monolinguals. Our research will identify the protective effects of being bilingual and being fit in ageing and generate new knowledge about how best to maintain language abilities across the lifespan.
In developed countries people are living increasingly long lives but the increase in life-span is often associated with a decrease in quality of life. A major contributor to this decrease is the cognitive decline associated with normal, healthy ageing, which is characterized by slower mental functioning, reduced focus and impaired memory. Language function, a central aspect of cognition, is also affected by age. With age, language becomes slower, less fluent, and subject to embarrassing failures in word finding. Such problems have a negative effect on wellbeing, reducing the ability to communicate effectively, increasing social isolation and loneliness. Our proposal investigates two factors that might ameliorate cognitive decline in older adults: speaking a second language and regular exercise. Both have been shown to support non-linguistic aspects of cognition. However, despite its importance for quality of life, language function has received little attention in ageing research. This is of particular importance for bilinguals who, across the life span, have measurably slower and less fluent speech than monolinguals. Our research will test competing psycholinguistic theories of the bilingual disadvantage in language function, which make different predictions about the impact of healthy aging. We compare the cognitive function of young and older English monolinguals and Norwegian-English bilinguals and relate it to key aspects of language use and language proficiency. We will also run a physical activity intervention with the older adults to determine the benefits associated with increased fitness for mono- and bilinguals and measure the associated changes in brain structure and function for monolinguals. Our research will identify the key protective components of language profile and fitness allowing us to optimize our use of regular physical activity and language learning to combat cognitive decline in old age.