Bilingualism and Brain Health

Research indicates fluency in more than one language helps protect the brain. (Credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

Though conjugating verbs and translating prose may seem like a pain, scientists have found a compelling reason why studying a foreign language is important. New evidence suggests that those who speak two or more languages are more likely to delay the onset of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) than those who only speak one language.

Research has shown that bilingual children and adults perform better on tasks that are run by the brains executive control system. New research published in the fall of 2010 in the journal Neurology indicates that another advantage of bilingualism is that it helps multi-language speakers maintain brain function as they age.

Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, Canada, studied a population of Alzheimer’s patients that included both bilingual and monolingual individuals. Patients that spoke two or more languages were on average diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years later than single-language speakers. Interestingly, the physical effects of the disease on the brains of bilingual patients were more advanced than that of the monolingual patients, though both populations had the same mental abilities. Bialystok’s research indicates that bilingual patients are better able to cope with the cognitive effects of the disease. Brain research shows that the effort required to speak two languages causes the brain to work harder. When the brain works harder, the result is a brain with more cognitive reserves and more resources that lets it function at a higher level even when damage or impairment occurs due to a disease such as Alzheimer’s.

We’ve been able to show that people who spend most of their lives actively using two languages are able to postpone symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease by four or five years beyond what we see in comparable monolingual patients, Dr. Bialystok said in an interview about her research with the media outlet Voice of America.

Its possible that the bilingual mind is just better connected and better able to cope when there’s a disease like Alzheimer’s because it has a more robust set of mental activities, she said.

According to Amy Weinberg, a linguist at the University of Maryland-College Park, individuals who speak two or more languages are better at cognitive control. The term cognitive control refers to a persons ability to focus their attention to solve a problem. Those who speak more than one language are constantly using cognitive control to focus on speaking and comprehending one language at a time.

Bilingualism also contributes to cognitive reserve. According to Dr. Yaakov Stern, a clinical neuropsychologist at Columbia University, cognitive reserve refers to the ability to optimize or maximize performance through differential recruitment of brain networks. In an article published by Stern in the journal Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders, he noted that [t]he idea of reserve against brain damage stems from the repeated observation that there does not seem to be a direct relationship between the degree of brain pathology or brain damage and the clinical manifestation of that damage. Studies indicate that individuals with higher levels of intelligence and education have brains that are better equipped to deal with brain damage. Those individuals that participate in brain-stimulating activities, such as playing word games or solving logic puzzles, are also better-protected from brain impairment as they age. The cognitive reserve hypothesis suggests that the brains of these individuals process tasks in a way that helps to limit the effects of brain damage, should it occur.

So, the next time you’re in a foreign language class, pay attention! Not only are you becoming a more well-rounded citizen by gaining fluency in a second language, you’re also doing a world of good for your brain–and your mental health–far in the future.

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  1. Intresting…I would think that music would do the same.

  2. I have always heard that being bilingual makes your brain more complex because it builds new neural nets, and now, it seems like this new evidence just adds to this case, so why are so many Americans proud that they only speak English? and why don’t we teach everyone to be bilingual or trilingual from preschool on up?

  3. Knocked my socks off with konlwedge!

  4. I agree this way we can lower the risks of Alzheimer’s from the early grades. I am bilingual and it really does help me stay in control. This is very interesting.

  5. This article was very interesting, and I wish I could share this with a few people in my Spanish class who don’t pay attention!

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