Speaking more than one language throughout your life may keep you sharper as you age, according to new research. The larger message appears to be that the effort involved in learning something new and challenging — like a new instrument or language — brings benefits to the brain beyond the new skill itself.

"This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity, in this case speaking multiple languages on a daily basis, and brain function," John Woodard, Ph.D., an expert on aging who was not involved in the study, tells The Doctor.

Dr. Woodard was not surprised by these findings because quite a few studies have found that mentally stimulating activity has benefits in terms of cognitive functioning. Researchers talk about living what they call "an engaged lifestyle" or an "enriched lifestyle," says Woodard, a professor of psychology at Wayne State University.

Examples of enriching one’s lifestyle include things such as travel, learning a new language, playing an instrument, or doing art or creative writing. In other words, getting out and having new experiences. "I think sometimes we tend to get in a rut, and sort of do a routine set of tasks from day to day," Woodard says. And routine is less mentally stimulating than shaking things up by doing new things and trying new activities.

The current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy bilingual people aged 60-68 with that of healthy monolingual people of the same age as both groups completed a task designed to test cognitive flexibility.

Researchers talk about living what they call 'an engaged lifestyle' or an 'enriched lifestyle.'

Both the bilingual and monolingual participants completed the task accurately, but the bilingual study participants completed the task more quickly than their monolingual peers, even though they expended less energy in the frontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in task switching. Their brains appeared to operate more efficiently.

The researchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task. They found that the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task, but the ability to speak a second language did not affect task performance or brain activity in the younger group.

This finding suggests that learning a second language later in life may not offer the same benefits to brain functioning that early bilingualism does. "The brain changes were really seen in the older group who had been bilingual for most of their lives," says Woodard. That said, it certainly could not hurt to shake up your brain's language processing a little bit, and probably the earlier the better. The study was published online in The Journal of Neuroscience.