Being Bilingual Can Help Prevent Alzheimer’s

August 18, 2019
Most people agree that speaking more than one language can have a positive impact on your life. But do you know what it does for your brain? New research suggests that being bilingual can help prevent mild cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer's.

Being bilingual has many social and psychological advantages. But did you know that it’s also good for the brain? Scientists have discovered some very interesting cognitive effects of being bilingual. For example, speaking two languages helps you recover more quickly from a stroke. It can even delay the onset of dementia.

In fact, more and more studies are stating that speaking more than one language can delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease. A Canadian study that was published last year in Neuropsychologia magazine showed that being bilingual changes the brain’s structure in ways that are linked to the resistance of Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.

Older studies also had some very interesting findings on the subject. One of them that was published in 2013 in Neurology magazine found that speaking two languages could delay Alzheimer’s by at least 4.5 years. The study’s researchers later suggested that being bilingual can contribute to the development of certain areas of the brain that control executive function and basic psychological processes such as attention.

While those studies were merely hypothesizing, a later study used MRI data to examine the memory-associated brain regions that are affected by Alzheimer’s and its precursor, mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

According to the researchers, this is the first study that not only evaluated the areas of the brain that control language and cognition but also established a link between these areas of the brain and memory in a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

An older man's head breaking into pieces.

Being bilingual can counteract brain damage

The study analyzed:

  • 34 multilingual participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
  • 34 monolingual participants with MCI.
  • 13 multilingual participants with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • 13 monolingual participants with Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s important to note that the researchers studied the medial temporal lobe, which plays a huge part in the formation of memories. They also studied the frontal regions of the brain.

The researchers discovered that the multilingual participants in both groups had thicker cortexes in the brain areas related to cognitive control and language. The results were similar in native Canadian MCI participants, which ruled out immigration as a potential complicating factor.

Thus, this study supports the hypothesis that speaking two languages is a protective factor and can increase cortical thickness and gray matter density. It also demonstrates the structural differences that exist in multilingual patients with Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.

Also, the results contribute to research that indicates that speaking more than one language is a lifestyle factor that improves cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is like a drawer where your brain stores its ability to face challenges by using its knowledge of alternative ways to complete a task.

Being bilingual helps prevent Alzheimer's.

Being bilingual has many benefits. Below, we’ll take a look at what they are so you can have a better understanding of why speaking more than one language is important for brain function.

The cognitive benefits of being bilingual

  • Being bilingual helps prevent dementia. Bilingual adults with Alzheimer’s take twice as long to develop symptoms than their monolingual peers. The average age of onset of dementia symptoms in monolingual adults is 71.4, while the average age of onset for bilingual adults is 75.5.
  • Being bilingual helps you concentrate on tasks. Bilingual people concentrate better than monolingual people. They’re better at identifying relevant information.
  • Being bilingual improves cognitive abilities. Bilingual people are sharper and their brains are more alert and active, even when they’re only using one language.
  • Being bilingual increases grey matter. Grey matter is responsible for language processing, memory storage, and attention. Bilingual people have denser grey matter than their monolingual counterparts.
  • Being bilingual improves your memory. Learning a foreign language entails memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary. This mental exercise improves overall memory. Consequently, bilingual people are better at remembering lists and sequences.
  • Being bilingual improves decision-making abilities. Bilingual people tend to make more rational decisions. They’re also surer of themselves and their decisions after thinking in their second language.
  • Being bilingual improves concentration in your native language. When you learn a second language, you focus on grammar and sentence structure. That means that you tend to be more aware of language in general. Learning a foreign language makes people better communicators, editors, and writers.

Start learning another language today!

Most people know that being bilingual looks good on a resume and can help when you travel to a foreign country. But the benefits of speaking more than one language go much farther than that. With all the research that demonstrates the benefits of learning a second language, there’s no doubt that it’s worth a try. If you aren’t bilingual already, what are you waiting for?