Keep Sharp, Master More Languages, Delay Alzheimer's
Medical News Today
18 Feb 2011
A new study shows that bilingual patients did not contract Alzheimer's, the worst phase of dementia until five years later than their monolingual compadres. Mastering a second language can pump up your brain in ways that seem to delay getting Alzheimer's disease later on.
Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto discussed this phenomenon at the AAAS conference in Washington D.C. this week. Once annually, AAAS sponsors an international conference-four days of symposia, lectures, seminars, workshops, and poster sessions that cover every area of science, technology, and education. Nearly 1,000 scientists present new and exciting multidisciplinary research and developments to nearly 8,000 attendees who will participate in the meeting and network with colleagues.
Until recently, much of the study of bilingualism has centered on babies, as scientists wondered why simply speaking to infants in two languages allows them to learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. Their brains seem to become more flexible, better able to multitask. As they grow up, their brains show better executive control, a system key to higher functioning as Bialystok puts it, "the most important part of your mind."
Bialystok took the time to study 450 Alzheimer's patients, all of whom showed the same degree of impairment at the time of diagnosis. Half were bilingual, and the rest monolingual.
The bilingual patients had Alzheimer's symptoms and were diagnosed between four and five years later than the patients who spoke only one language, she told the annual meeting's attendees this week. Her work supports an earlier study from other researchers that also found a protective effect.
When a person knows two languages, they are essentially turned on all the time, but the brain learns to inhibit the one you don't need, keeping your brain at a level of constant activity.
At the University of Maryland, scientists are studying how to identify adults who would be good candidates to master a new language, and then what types of training are best. Having a pretty strong executive control system, like the lifelong bilinguals have, is among the good predictive factors, said Amy Weinberg, deputy director of the university's Center for Advanced Study of Language.