Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most heart-breaking diseases of the elderly, and one of the most poorly understood. The causes are unclear; while scientists believe that genetics are part of the picture, they also believe that environmental factors have a role to play in how and when a person develops the disease.
Also unclear is how to prevent Alzheimer’s, though scientists have known for some time that engaging in mentally stimulating activities can help delay the onset. Research has also suggested that Alzheimer’s tends to strike (or at least to become clinically apparent) later in life in people who speak two or more languages. Now, a new study offers an additional ray of hope, showing that bilingual people do not start experiencing symptoms until much later on in the course of the disease than people who only speak one language.
The study, performed by a team of Canadian scientists, used CT scans to compare the brains of bilingual patients who were recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s with monolingual patients who had also been recently diagnosed. Both groups of patients showed the same amount of impairment, but according to neuroscientist Tom Schweizer, who led the study, “to our surprise, the bilingual patients had twice as much atrophy in that area, despite the fact that they were maintaining their function and cognitive levels just as well as the monolingual patient.”
Speaking to the Winnipeg Free Press, Dr. Schweizer continued, “So that was quite striking. That was extremely counterintuitive to most people, because if you have more disease burden and your brain looks more damaged, you should be performing worse. So there’s something afforded by this bilingualism and we think it’s mapped onto this idea of cognitive reserve.”
Reading, writing and doing puzzles of all types are all great ways to keep your brain limber and hopefully create the “cognitive reserve” that delays the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. However, being bilingual is a special case because it means you are exercising your brain all time as you move from one language to the other. That may be why it seems to offer extra protection.