Speaking two languages can protect against dementia, mental decline

BARCELONA, Spain — Being bilingual can open a person’s mind to new cultures and allow them to communicate with people around the world. A new study adds the ability to speak two languages can also keep your mind sharper as you age. Researchers in Spain say being bilingual, especially throughout your life, can significantly protect the brain against the symptoms of dementia.

Scientists from Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Barcelona reveal the brain’s executive control system plays a major role in helping people switch back and forth between two languages. The study finds this ability which helps people focus on one task can also help delay cognitive decline.

“The prevalence of dementia in countries where more than one language is spoken is 50% lower than in those regions where the population uses only one language to communicate,” says UOC researcher Marco Calabria in a university release.

Study authors say previous reports also reveal a link between knowing at least two languages and increasing cognitive reserves. Their study is aiming to find what causes a bilingual brain to function better later in life.

“We wanted to discover the mechanism through which bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve in cases of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, and whether there were differences in terms of the benefit gained from different degrees of bilingualism, and not only between monolingual and bilingual people,” Calabria adds.

‘Executive control’ strengthened by being bilingual

The new study focuses on the people of Barcelona, where residents speak Catalan and Spanish in a wide range of degrees. Researchers report some neighborhoods are predominantly Catalan-speaking, while others use Spanish as a main language.

Using questionnaires, the team examines 63 healthy residents, 135 with mild cognitive impairments, and 68 Alzheimer’s patients. Calabria believes cognitive functions, like executive control, kick in to make this linguistic juggling act possible. These are the same mental abilities which help people focus on driving while filtering out distractions in the car.

“In the context of neurodegenerative diseases, this system could offset symptoms. So, when something is not functioning well due to the disease, thanks to the fact that it is bilingual, the brain has efficient alternative systems for resolving the problem,” the professor at the UOC Faculty of Health Sciences explains.

The more you practice, the better your brain works

The study creates a “bilingualism gradient” which measures how proficient each participant is at speaking two or more languages. The Spanish team’s ranges from people who only speak one language and passively exposed to another to those who regularly switch between languages from an early age.

The results discover people “with a higher degree of bilingualism received a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment later than those who were passive bilinguals.”

“Active bilingualism is an important predictor of delay in the onset of symptoms of mild cognitive impairment – a preclinical phase of Alzheimer’s disease – because it contributes to cognitive reserve,” Calabria says.

Researchers are now hoping to see if being bilingual can also have a positive impact for patients with Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

The study appears in the journal Neuropsychologia.

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