Editor’s note: Home Sweet Home is a feature appearing Mondays in McKnight’s Home Care Daily. The story focuses on a heartwarming, entertaining or quirky happening affecting the world of home care. If you have a topic that might be worthy of the spotlight in Home Sweet Home, please email Diane Eastabrook at [email protected].

It’s well known that challenging the brain in older age helps stave off memory loss. Learning a new language is one such way.

Dave Clark, chief product officer of Reading Horizons and author of the newly released book “Spanish for Seniors,” can attest to this. For many years, he has studied the correlation between language learning and memory — and the corresponding ties to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a key role in cognitive function and memory.

“As seniors are getting older and memory starts fading, as they start learning Spanish, research shows that the acetylcholine can come back into their brains, which can help them with memory function,” said Clark, who also holds a master’s degree in language pedagogy from the University of Utah and was the director of the U.S. Institute of Languages for 18 years.

Because language learning is considered a new activity, as opposed to, say, reading, it can help restore levels of acetylcholine and overall improve seniors’ memory functions, he said. In the case of young children, who are constantly learning new things, their levels of acetylcholine are very high. Older adults need to actively work to restore these levels, which is where language learning comes into play, he explained. 

“You’re learning and remembering new words and you’re trying to sound new pronunciation,” said Clark, “so you’re actually using new muscles in your mouth. There’s just so many benefits of learning a language.”

The benefit of independence 

So powerful is language learning that it plays a critical role in helping seniors live more independently and safely, he said. Because of its link to improved cognitive function, seniors are better equipped to remember basic tasks such as turning off the stove, taking medications and keeping track of what day of the week it is.

Referencing the work of Norman Doidge, M.D., author of “The Brain that Changes Itself,” Clark added that language learning can even improve seniors’ memories by up to 20 or 30 years, “so that could absolutely help seniors living alone,” he said.

Youthful inspiration

Clark’s inspiration to write his book started on a mission trip he took to Peru and the Dominican Republic decades ago at the age of 19. He loved the experience of listening to the native speakers and learning Spanish overall. 

At 21, he returned home and went to visit his grandparents, who helped him to continue learning Spanish.

“I absolutely loved the experience,” said Clark, who is working on a project called Spanish for Nurses. “This is fun stuff. My grandpa loved it, and the interesting thing was he was old and mostly confined to a hospital bed, but he loved learning and was still learning. His brain stayed sharp until he passed away.”