Page 1

Fit for old age?

Many people experience some degree of decline in language processes as they grow older, limiting their ability to pursue their interests and reducing their quality of life. Evidence suggests that physical fitness and the ability to speak another language can help combat cognitive decline, a topic at the heart of Professor Linda Wheeldon and Dr. Katrien Segaert’s work in the FAB project.

The demographic profile of the European population is shifting, with more and more of us living for longer. Many people experience some degree of physical and cognitive decline as they grow older, which then limits their ability to pursue their interests and affects their quality of life, a topic at the heart of the FAB project. “How do we help people maintain their cognitive and language processes as they age, so that we can improve their quality of life?” outlines Professor Linda Wheeldon, the project’s leader. Physical fitness and bilingualism could be important factors in this respect, now Professor Wheeldon and her colleagues in the project are investigating the extent to which they protect against cognitive decline.

“Physical wellbeing extends to your brain, while there are also claims that being bilingual leads to cognitive benefits,” she says.

Monolinguals and bilinguals

An individual with two languages is never fully monolingual again, and they constantly have to manage the activation of those languages, essentially suppressing one to use the other. This involves a lot of cognitive work, and evidence suggests that bilinguals use their brains differently from monolinguals for this reason. “Different areas of the brain become active, areas that might not be active in a monolingual person’s language use,” explains Professor Wheeldon. Evidence also suggests that physical fitness can reduce the likelihood of experiencing word-finding problems, known as the tip of the tongue phenomenon. “As you get older, word-finding problems typically increase. In collaboration with sports scientist Dr. Samuel Lucas we measured VO2 max - a cardiovascular fitness measure - from a group of people, then did a word-finding test,” says Professor Wheeldon. “We found a significant relationship between fitness and word-finding ability here, with fitter individuals less likely to experience any difficulties.”

The project team is now working with sports scientists Professor Sveinung Berntsen and Dr. Hilde Lohne Seiler in Norway to build a deeper picture of the impact of fitness and bilingualism on cognitive and language

processing. Researchers are analysing data on four groups recruited in Norway and the UK. “We had a younger group (between 18-35), and an older group (60-85) in both Norway and the UK,” outlines Professor Wheeldon.

“The younger Norwegian bilinguals in the study are fairly typical Scandinavians in that they start learning English at school around the age of 6. The older bilinguals probably started learning English a bit later than the younger group, which is a factor that we take into account in our analysis.”

The UK groups are monolingual, providing a clear contrast with the Norwegian groups. In both countries the study participants came in for a series of language tests and fitness assessments, with researchers looking to recruit participants who were neither superfit, nor highly unhealthy. “We are interested in healthy ageing, so we wanted a sub-set of the population that we could make a difference to. The study participants were healthy individuals,” says Professor Wheeldon. A home-based exercise intervention was run on some of the groups, then the language tests and fitness assessments were conducted

again, from which Professor Wheeldon aimed to gain fresh insights. “We compared a homebased intervention with no intervention, and looked at changes in behaviour,” she continues.

This intervention was designed to improve people’s fitness, which researchers were then able to relate to changes in their cognitive and language functioning. One major topic of interest in the project is the tip of the tongue phenomenon, where an individual knows the word they want to say but struggles to actually say it. “Everyone experiences this –from 2-year olds upwards – but older people and bilinguals have it more often,” says Professor Wheeldon. Alongside word-finding tasks, Professor Wheeldon and her colleagues are also interested in more natural, free speech. “We gave the participants a picture description task. We made pictures of scenes and asked people to describe what they saw for two minutes,” she outlines. “We’ve have data from each of the four groups doing this task, both pre- and post-intervention.”

A vast amount of data has been collected over the course of the project which is

currently being analysed by research fellows

Dr. Eunice Fernandes, Dr. Foyzul Rahman and Dr. Yanina Prystauka, along with PhD students Sindre Fosstveit and Jack Feron, who are working to gain fresh insights into the impact of bilingualism and physical activity on language and cognitive abilities. This includes data on first and second language processing and natural speech, as well as fitness information both pre- and post-intervention, which is enough to keep the large research team extremely busy.

“We’re currently working through the data.

vulnerable groups of older adults, which would require some changes to the overall approach. “There are many potential ways in which we could branch out, but we would have to adjust quite a lot of things, including the language tasks,” continues Professor Wheeldon. There are plans to build on the work done in FAB in a successor project, which Professor Wheeldon says would be led more by sports scientists.

“We plan to focus more on vulnerable groups of older adults. We’re thinking about issues like mild cognitive impairment and frailty in particular,” she says.

“Different areas of the brain become active in people who speak two languages, areas that might not be active in a monolingual person.”

We have already submitted five articles, and three or four more are in the pipeline,” outlines Professor Wheeldon. The natural speech dataset is a particularly rich resource for phonologist Professor Allison Wetterlin, a colleague of Professor Wheeldon at the University of Agder. “We can look at fluency and pausing in speech. Pauses between utterances tell us about planning, while pauses within utterances are usually word issues,” says Professor Wheeldon.

Older adults

The project has largely focused on language and cognitive processes, and the evidence so far suggests the exercise intervention does have an impact, with some significant effects observed on language processes. The next step could then be to extend this research to more

There will still be language and cognitive components to this research, but a future project will be focused more on the physical fitness side. One major area of interest here is motivation and adherence to a fitness programme. “What can people realistically do? What motivates them to keep going with a fitness programme? You don’t want to set programmes that are out of reach,” points out Professor Wheeldon. The project itself is set to conclude in the next few months, but Professor Wheeldon plans to share their findings more widely, which could lead to further collaborations and inter-disciplinary research in future. “We’re going to run an international workshop at the end of May. We will invite scientists in bilingualism, brain health and fitness to share our findings and get their input,” she says.


Fitness, Ageing and Bilingualism (FAB) : The benefits of regular physical activity and bilingualism for language abilities in healthy ageing

Project Objectives

Physical fitness and bilingualism may ameliorate cognitive decline in ageing, but less is known about their effects on language function. Our aim is therefore to test the effects of becoming fitter and being bilingual on cognitive and linguistic functioning in healthy ageing.

Project Funding

This project is funded by the Research Council of Norway (Grant no. 300030).

Project Partners


Contact Details

Project Coordinator, Prof. Linda Wheeldon, Institutt for fremmedspråk og oversetting, Office: E1054

Universitetsveien 25, Kristiansand

Universitetet Agder

T: +47 38 14 14 84

E: linda.r.wheeldon@uia.no

W: https://www.fab-study.com/about-the-project/

Linda Wheeldon is a professor at UiA, Faculty of Humanities and Education. She has a background in experimental psycholinguistics and theoretical linguistics. She is interested in the representation of language structure and how it affects language processing, especially in bilingualism. She also investigates the effects of healthy ageing on such processes.

Katrien Segaert is an associate Professor at the University of Birmingham in the School of Psychology. Her research focuses on the neurobiology of language processing, with a special focus on how sentence-level processes and interactive communication are supported by the brain. She also studies how the neurobiological infrastructure of language processing changes throughout the lifespan, and the mitigating effects of lifestyle factors on language decline.

www.euresearcher.com 21 EU Research 20
Prof. Linda Wheeldon Dr. Katrien Segaert The FAB Team (clockwise): Sindre, Jack, Sveinung, Hilde, Yanina, Allison, Katrien, Eunice, Foyzul, Linda and Sam. FAB study design for young and older participants pre fitness intervention, and older participants post intervention.

Turn static files into dynamic content formats.

Create a flipbook
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.