Fun Language Apps Boost Senior Brain Function

A new study shows that seniors’ use of a language learning app results in similar brain function benefits to specialist brain training apps but is more fun.

Bilingualism has been linked to improved executive function and delayed onset of dementia, but it is unknown whether similar benefits can be obtained later in life through deliberate intervention. Given the logistical hurdles of second language acquisition in a randomized trial for older adults, few interventional studies have been done thus far. However, recently developed smartphone apps offer a convenient means to acquire skills in a second language and can be compared with brain training apps specifically designed to improve executive function. In a randomized clinical trial, 76 adults aged 65–75 were assigned to either 16 weeks of Spanish learning using the app Duolingo 30 minutes a day, an equivalent amount of brain training using the app BrainHQ, or a waitlist control condition. Executive function was assessed before and after the intervention with preregistered (NCT03638882) tests previously linked to better performance in bilinguals. For two of the primary measures: incongruent Stroop color naming and 2-back accuracy, Duolingo provided equivalent benefits as BrainHQ compared to a control group. On reaction time for N-back and Simon tests, the BrainHQ group alone experienced strong gains over the other two groups. Duolingo was rated as more enjoyable. These results suggest that app-based language learning may provide some similar benefits as brain training in improving executive function in seniors but has less impact on processing speed. However, future advancements in app design may optimize not only the acquisition of the target language but also the side benefits of the language learning experience.

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Jed A. Meltzer, Mira Kates Rose, Anna Y. Le, Kiah A. Spencer, Leora Goldstein, Alina Gubanova, Abbie C. Lai, Maryam Yossofzai, Sabrina E.M. Armstrong & Ellen Bialystok (2021) Improvement in executive function for older adults through smartphone apps: a randomized clinical trial comparing language learning and brain training, Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, DOI: 10.1080/13825585.2021.1991262

2 COMMENTS

  1. I have tried Duolingo, and it is a very well designed app. The interface is playful and easy to use. However, one strong point that should be mentioned is the community of users that actively participate in the chosen language being studied. The sense of community, and the possibility to ask questions from more advanced learners is invaluable, as is the option to exchange language resources.

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