Staying Mentally Fit and Young at Heart

I remember traveling to Europe as a young woman, not too long after World War II. I was astounded by the degree of normalcy that had seemingly returned to a continent that was once torn to pieces by century-old hostilities between neighboring nations. I took a bicycle tour around beautiful Lake Constance whose shores are shared by no less than four countries. Even back then, people crossed borders to go to work or shop and were able to switch languages almost effortlessly.

Lifetime Learning
Can Be a Fountain of Youth

In today’s united Europe, it is not uncommon for people to converse in two or three languages at a time. With diminishing language barriers come new business and job opportunities resulting in international exchanges at levels that were unimaginable only a short while ago. Few would dispute that today’s Europe is a better place than it once was, despite the difficulties that may persist among its member-states to forge a truly integrated society.

When President Barack Obama gave a speech on the subject of immigration, he spoke not only of the importance of learning English as an essential part for obtaining citizenship in the United States for all newcomers, he also emphasized the benefits of learning other languages in general. In this increasingly globalized world, we all should learn at least one language other than our own, the President said. Such ideas seem only logical for someone of his international ancestry and upbringing. Unfortunately, for most Americans, they are not.

Ours is a big country that stretches over a vast continent. We have no interior borders and there are arguably no real cultural differences within our society. The fact that we speak a common language is considered by many a positive factor for the unity of our nation. All that may change over time.

Besides social and economical benefits, learning different languages apparently has other positive “side effects” as well. In a newly conducted study called “Health and Retirement” by the University of Michigan Medical School, which was based on a national survey of older Americans, the researchers concluded that the rate of “cognitive impairment,” such as memory loss and thinking problems, is significantly lower among the higher educated compared to the general population.

Although, the reasons for this discrepancy in cognitive ability have not all been determined yet, there is evidence that not only a solid formal education early in life makes a difference but also a lifetime of continued learning.

Other studies of the subject have pointed out that enhanced intellectual stimulation – such as academic work, travel or learning of foreign languages – can be particularly useful for delaying age-related mental decline. In other words, the “use-it-or-lose-it” rule is very much a part of keeping a healthy mind.

None of this should come as a surprise. Learning in general, but especially learning languages where one is forced to commit vast vocabularies and grammatical rules to memory, keeps the mind active like little else. If you have the privilege to spend extended periods of time in a foreign country, you can reap even more benefits, because you are not only able to express yourself in new ways, you can also broaden your horizon by listening to views and perspectives different from your own.

The impact can be enormous. You probably won’t be the same person you were before. It was the great Mark Twain who once said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness – and many of us need it sorely on these accounts.”

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