Alzheimer's Study: Bilingual Brains Are Dementia-Resistant

By Andrew Moseman | February 22, 2011 2:31 pm


A bilingual brain is a healthy brain. (Un cerebro bilingüe es un cerebro sano.)

Speakers of two languages may have extra defenses against the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease—that’s according to new research announced this weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok and her team studied more than 200 Alzheimer’s patients with about the same level of mental acumen, about half of whom were bilingual and half of whom were monolingual. The result: On average, the speakers of multiple languages had been diagnosed four years later in their lives. Says Bialystok:

“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system. We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals. They perform at a higher level. It won’t stop them getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.” [The Guardian]

To get a look at that system, the team took CT scans of the patients’ brain. That’s when they found something curious: The physical ravages of Alzheimer’s were actually more advanced in the brains of bilinguals, despite the fact that they were mentally more protected.

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. [National Geographic]

Bialystok’s research, which appears in Neurology, isn’t the only good news for bilinguals. A separate study by Janet Werker says that babies raised to speak at least two languages from birth have an amazing ability we monolinguists lack: They can tell the difference between two languages they’ve never heard just by watching to people speaking—they don’t even need to hear them.

Given regular exposure to two languages, infants develop a general ability to track closely what they hear and see in decoding languages, Werker proposed. In the visual realm, such information may include lip movements, the rhythm of the jaw opening and closing, and the full ensemble of facial movements while talking. [Science News]

Not everyone was fortunate enough to hear multiple languages from birth, but Bialystok says that’s OK—bilingualism could offer brain benefits even if you wait until later in life to finally master those French verb conjugations.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Bilingual Brain
80beats: Mother Tongue, Indeed: Newborn’s Cries Mimic Mama’s Accent
80beats: A Toke a Day Might Keep Alzheimer’s Away
80beats: Doctors Get Closer to Detecting Alzheimer’s with a Brain Scan
80beats: Study: Babies Born this Decade Can Expect to Reach 100

Image: flickr / ➨ Redvers

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • http://@arki7 Arki

    Interesting. This reinforces previous results from test of bilingual people.
    It actually makes me happier for myself for speaking two languages. I want to learn more though.
    I wonder if the benefits are higher for people who speak several more languages.

  • Tim Godfrey

    I am glad to hear about this research. My native language is English, and I manage quite well in French, Spanish, with some Italian, and some German.

    Toronto is a very mutilcultural city, and so I have started learning how to say Thank You in other languages. I can now say thank you in, Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, Afgani, Urdu, Hungarian, Serbian, Czech, Koren, Dutch, and Tagalog (Phillipino). It’s actually not that hard to do this – I just keep notes on my smart phone. I make the heading the language, and type in the sounds phonetically – eventually I learn the right way to say the phrase – and the people I meet help me. I just ask them – “How do you say Thank You in your language?” They are always eager to teach me – and there are usually some good laughs as I try. By being a bit brave I guess I am staving off Alzheimers while I make new friends.

  • Matt B.

    I hope my mere dabbling in dozens of languages (and writing systems) helps, because I’m probably not going to get to fluency in any of them.

  • Patricia Anderson

    I’m fluent in music. Does that count as a second language? I forget what I read but never forget the music I’ve memorized.

  • Kelly

    This pretty interesting. I bet a lot of people wish they had known this sooner. Since learning of a friend’s diagnosis, I have been doing a lot of research on the disease. If anyone in the NC happens to read this and is looking for some home care options for a loved one I would suggest this home care huntersville company.. they have been great so far.

  • Kirsty

    This post is very interesting, for those who are interesting in dementia training check out http://cq3.co.uk/specialist-dementia.php

  • Hilda Maldonado

    That’s such an interesting topic to research. I’m a current psychology major working on my bachelors degree and Im looking forward to master or even phD in Neurology, and I would love to do a research in this subject.

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