Learning and Using A New Language Benefits Brain and Slows Alzheimer's Disease

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • When I was a teenager, my parents took me to a company that does aptitude testing to help me in thinking about a professional career.  The tests covered everything from manual dexterity to spatial understanding. I really struggled on one test involving memorizing and associating nonsensical words; it turned out that test gauged one’s aptitude for picking up a foreign language. I remember during the debriefing session at the end of all testing that the test administrator shared with me that I would probably really have difficulty picking up a second language.  But I still may try to learn another language to not only have the joy of conversing with people from other countries, but also also to help defend against Alzheimer’s disease.

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    In a story on National Geographic.com, Christine Dell’Amore reported on a new study that was published in the November 2010 issue of Neurology.  Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at Canada’s York University, led the research which studied 102 longtime bilingual and 109 monolingual people who had Alzheimer’s and were at the same cognitive level. The researchers found that the study participants who were bilingual were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s approximately four years later than participants who only spoke one language.  In addition, Dr. Bialystok used CT scans to examine the brains of study participants who were the same ago and who functioned at the same level mentally. She found that the disease’s effects were more advanced in the brains of bilingual people; however, bilingual speakers’ brains seemed to be compensating for the disease’s progression. “Even though the ‘machine’ is more broken, they can function at the same level as a monolingual with less disease,” Dr. Bialystok stated.

    Researchers credited the effect of multiple languages on the brain’s executive control system. In an article in the New York Times, Dr. Bialystok described the executive control system as “a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

    While many people who participated in the study were bilingual for most of their lives, scientists believe that learning a second language later in life can still be beneficial to your brain.  Dr. Bialystok said learning a second (or third) language keeps the brain active, thus contributing to brain fitness. But just studying a language in high school won’t be of help. “You have to use both languages all the time,” she explained. “You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use.”

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Published On: June 06, 2011