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Being Multilingual May Protect Against Alzheimer's Disease

New research suggests it creates a cognitive reserve the brain can utilize when other regions start to decay.

Few notions are as frightening as the thought of your brain beginning to deteriorate. To avoid this fate, aging Baby Boomers have turned to a plethora of potentially helpful practices, ranging from intellectual stimulation to yoga.

New research suggests a surprising characteristic makes people less susceptible to dementia's devastating effects. It reports there is protective power in speaking more than one language.

Being multilingual may "delay the cognitive effects of disease-related atrophy," writes a research team led by Concordia University psychologists Hilary Duncan and Natalie Phillips. "Our data contributes to the growing literature that there may be subtle differences in brain structure related to multilingualism."

Subtle, but extremely valuable.

Previous research has linked bilingualism with delays in the onset of dementia, but this study, in the journal Neuropsychologia, is the most comprehensive to date. The participants were 94 patients of the Jewish General Hospital of Montreal's Memory Clinic.

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Twenty-six of them had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease; the other 68 suffered from mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to dementia. In both of those groups, half the participants spoke one language, while the other half spoke two or more.

The patients were matched in terms of age, education, short-term memory, and overall cognitive function. Their brains were then scanned using MRI equipment.

The researchers report the multilingual Alzheimer's patients showed more atrophy in key memory-related parts of the brain than their single-language counterparts. Based on those readings, they should have been doing worse than the people they were paired with, when in fact they were holding their own.

"This suggests that their increased cognitive reserve, gained from a history of mastering two languages," protected them from further deterioration.

The results support the hypothesis that "multilingual patients are able to utilize alternative networks for memory processing," the researchers write. "They are able to do so because of their increased grey matter in brain regions exercised by being bilingual."

Now, these are people who have been speaking more than one language (English and French for the majority of these Quebec-based participants) for the majority of their lives. More research will be needed to discover if learning a new language after you retire will have the same positive effect.

Overall, the researchers write, these results provide more evidence "that speaking more than one language is one of a number of lifestyle factors that contribute to (cognitive) reserve." And when it comes to brain power, you always want some back-up.