Learning for life: Investigating the potential of language learning as a non-pharmacological intervention in older adults with (past) depression


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    The proportion of the population aged 65 and over is steadily increasing. This brings with it several challenges both on a societal and personal level. One common challenge for healthy aging is late-life depression. Depression often goes hand in hand with cognitive complaints, both during and after a depressive episode. Furthermore, those with a history of depression have, on average, an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

    Researchers increasingly study if interventions without medication can improve cognitive functioning. An intervention that has received special attention in the past decade is language learning. Lifelong multilinguals develop Alzheimer’s disease up to several years later on average, and language learning activates brain networks that decline in aging. Therefore, learning a new language may be a cognitively complex activity that could protect the brain as we age. Importantly, language learning is not just a cognitively complex activity, but also a socially stimulating and enriching experience that can improve someone’s feelings of autonomy and self-confidence. This would be especially positive for people who experience(d) depression. Therefore, this dissertation aimed to study the effects of language learning in older adults with (past) depression.

    For this study, participants with (past) depression followed a three month online language course during the pandemic. Before the course started, and also at several moments after the course, we looked at participants’ well-being, cognitive functioning, and their English level. We saw that older adults with (past) depression experiences less social loneliness and less apathy after the course, but we did not see an improvement in their depression symptoms. We also saw that the improvements we found, were not there anymore after participants had stopped following the course for a couple of months. This suggests that learning a language probably does not have long-term positive benefits when you follow a short course. However, future research could find that longer courses – so several years, as opposed to months – could have a socially stimulating and motivating effect in the long term, which could make you more resilient against future depressive episodes and cognitive decline.
    Originele taal-2English
    KwalificatieDoctor of Philosophy
    Toekennende instantie
    • Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
    • Keijzer, Merel, Supervisor
    • Knooihuizen, Remco, Beoordelingscommissie
    Datum van toekenning18-apr.-2024
    Plaats van publicatie[Groningen]
    Gedrukte ISBN's978-94-6483-911-1
    StatusPublished - 2024

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