The protective power of bilingualism

Posted on 12/06/2017 · Posted in Dialogos, Our languages

A university in Italy scanned the brains of dozens of patients with Alzheimer’s disease as part of a study. Half of them spoke at least two languages, the other half only one. Guess which group had the more favourable results…

Earlier this year, the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan released its findings on a study into the effects of bilingualism on dementia, which commonly manifests as Alzheimer’s disease. One of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is cerebral hypometabolism. This means that the brain struggles to convert glucose into energy for itself – essentially the brain starts starving. Consequently tasks like remembering become more difficult.

Researchers found, however, that the patients who spoke more than one language – mostly Italian and German in this case – performed three to eight times better at short- and long-term memory tasks, compared to their monolingual counterparts. This was the case despite the bilingual patients specifically having been selected for having more advanced cerebral hypometabolism!

This is not the first study to prove that active bilingualism helps counter dementia: a Canadian study published in the scientific journal Cortex in 2012 found the first physical evidence (by means of CT scans) that speaking at least two languages fights the effects of Alzheimer’s. Practising multilingualism encourages the brain to strengthen neuron connections, building up what scholars refer to as cognitive reserve, which delays the onset of dementia.

So, treat your mind to a language course or two, and challenge your friends and colleagues to a multilingual conversation! As Arthur Fletcher once said: “The mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

More on this topic:
The impact of bilingualism on brain reserve and metabolic connectivity in Alzheimer’s dementia
Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease