Want to Protect Your Brain from Alzheimer's? Learn Another Language

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In light of Alzheimer's prevention, researchers have long advised to keep your brain active by doing puzzles and other mental exercises. The general consensus is that while puzzles can't prevent Alzheimer's, it's possible that the symptoms of Alzheimer's may be delayed in mentally fit, active brains.

A related idea was researched in a Toronto, Canada study conducted by Tom Schweizer, Fergus I.M.

Craik, Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Rather than puzzles, these researchers focused on bilingualism and the possible effect that utilizing two languages might have on cognitive functioning in Alzheimer's.

According to the article, previous studies by Bialystok and Craik had shown a delay in Alzheimer's symptoms by as much as five years in individuals who were bilingual. In this study, the researchers studied the CT scans of both bilingual and single language speakers who had been diagnosed with probably Alzheimer's and who demonstrated similar levels of brain functioning. The participant groups took into account age, education, jobs and gender to ensure that any difference identified could not be attributed to those factors.

This study found that the brains of those who were bilingual showed far more physical damage related to Alzheimer's than the brains of single language speakers, even though both groups performed at similar levels on three different cognitive tests.

What does this mean? The bilingual individuals were somehow able to compensate or utilize different paths in their brains despite having significantly more physical damage in their brains. This idea is often referred to as cognitive reserve. It appears that Alzheimer's had been developing for some time in their brains and yet the symptoms of Alzheimer's were far less progressed than would have been expected.

Further research published in the journal Neuropsychology studied the effects of being bilingual on the executive functioning of two groups of participants: 75 people with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and 74 with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, a condition that sometimes progresses into Alzheimer's disease. Executive functioning was tested using three different tests: the Trail-Making test, a color-word interference test (like the Stroop test) and the verbal fluency test. Results indicated that participants who were bilingual developed impaired executive functioning several years later than those who spoke only one language.

A third study outlined in PLOS One looked at the effects of being multilingual- that is, using more than 2 languages. The study consisted of participants who displayed some beginning cognitive impairment but had not been diagnosed with dementia. The researchers found that the participants who practiced more than 2 languages had a reduced risk of cognitive decline- in fact, up to 7 times the protection against cognitive decline as did those who used only two languages.

While there's no proven way to prevent Alzheimer's yet, these studies outline some pretty significant benefits for your brain from using multiple languages.


Cortext. Volume 48, Issue 8, September 2012. Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945211001043

Neuropsychology. 2014 Mar;28(2):290-304. Effects of bilingualism on the age of onset and progression of MCI and AD: evidence from executive function tests. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24245925

PLOS one. April 30, 2013. Lifelong Exposure to Multilingualism: New Evidence to Support Cognitive Reserve Hypothesis. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0062030

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