To Stave Off Alzheimer’s, Learn a Language?

To Stave Off Alzheimer’s, Learn a Language?

By Christine Dell’Amore via National Geographic News

Talk about the power of words—speaking at least two languages may slow dementia in the aging brain, new research shows.

Scientists already knew that bilingual young adults and children perform better on tasks dictated by the brain’s executive control system.

Located at the front of the brain, this system is “the basis for your ability to think in complex ways, control attention, and do everything we think of as uniquely human thought,” said Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Now studies are revealing that advantages of bilingualism persist into old age, even as the brain’s sharpness naturally declines, Bialystok said Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

(See “Cell Phone Use May Fight Alzheimer’s, Mouse Study Says.”)

Bilingual Brains Delay Aging Effects

Bialystok and colleagues examined 102 longtime bilingual and 109 monolingual Alzheimer’s patients who had the same level of mental acuity. About 24 million people have dementia worldwide, with the majority of them suffering from Alzheimer’s, according to Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet medical university.

The bilingual patients had been diagnosed with the Alzheimer’s about four years later than the monolingual patients, on average, according to Bialystok’s most recent study, published in November in the journal Neurology.

This suggests bilingualism is “protecting older adults, even as Alzheimer’s is beginning to affect cognitive function,” Bialystok said. (Take a brain quiz.)

Bialystok is also studying physical differences between bilingual and monolingual brains.

In a new experiment, she used CT scans to examine brains of monolinguals and bilinguals with dementia. All the subjects were the same age and functioned at the same cognitive level.

The physical effects of the disease in the brain were found to be more advanced in the bilinguals’ brains, even though their mental ability was roughly the same, Bialystok told National Geographic News.

Apparently, the bilinguals’ brains are somehow compensating, she said. “Even though the ‘machine’ is more broken, they can function at the same level as a monolingual with less disease,” she said.

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