You may have heard that learning a second language is one strategy for preventing or delaying the onset of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most frequent forms of dementia, characterized by a loss of cognitive ability. Since the roots of the disease are not well known at this time, there are no proven activities people can do to prevent Alzhimers’s. Still, some researchers have said that being bilingual could help delay its onset. In this article, we will entertain this question and try to find an answer: How bilingualism protect against Alzheimer’s?
A Brief Look at Dementia
Before delving into this topic, let’s examine some common misconceptions about dementia and the aging brain.
- First of all, dementia is not an unavoidable aspect of the aging process. Most older adults do not develop Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.
- It is also critical to understand that dementia is not the same as normal forgetfulness. At any age, we may have difficulties finding the exact word for something or remembering the name of someone we just met.
- Dementia patients experience more severe issues, such as feeling confused or lost in a familiar environment. For example, forgetting where you parked your car at the mall is natural; forgetting how to drive a vehicle may signify something more serious.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at the connection between the brain and muscles.
The Brain and Muscle Analogy
The analogy between the brain and a muscle is the foundation for the theory that people can prevent Alzheimer’s. When people talk about the brain, they often say, “it is necessary to train your brain” or “to be intellectually fit, you must give your brain a workout.”
Even though these are exciting comparisons, the brain is not a muscle. The brain, unlike muscles, is always working. It works even when you rest or sleep. In addition, while specific muscle cells have a lifespan of only a few days, brain cells have a life span of a lifetime. Furthermore, research has found that our body constantly produces new brain cells throughout a person’s lifespan.
However, while it makes for an analogy, comparing the brain to a muscle is inaccurate and misleading.
So, can you still exercise the brain if it isn’t a muscle? Once again, scientists are unsure. Nowadays, many computers, online, and mobile apps say they can “train your brain,” and most use a wide range of cognitive skills. However, research indicates that, while this type of training may enhance one’s ability to perform the activities, it does not seem to improve other capabilities.
In other words, doing a letter-detection exercise will strengthen your letter-detection skills over time, but it will not improve your different perceptual abilities. Essentially, solving crossword puzzles will enhance your crossword puzzle-solving skills.
The best evidence that learning a foreign language has cognitive benefits comes from research with people who are already bilingual. Bilingualism is most common in children exposed to two languages, either at home (mom speaks Dutch, dad speaks Spanish) or more officially in early childhood education. However, bilingualism happens in adults as well.
But the next question is, how common is it worldwide?
How Common is Bilingualism?
You may get surprised to learn that bilingualism and multilingualism are more common than you thought. According to estimates, there are fewer monolingual speakers worldwide than bilingual and multilingual people. Although many countries have only one official language (for example, Germany and Japan), others have several official languages.
Switzerland, for example, has almost the same population as New York City (around eight million people) but has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. In many regions of Africa, people who speak an indigenous language at home also speak Arabic, Swahili, French, and English. So, being bilingual or speaking more than one language is common worldwide.
But the good news is that studies on people who speak more than one language are encouraging in terms of cognitive ability.
Bilinguals VS Monolinguals: How Do They Compare?
In terms of selective attention and multitasking, bilinguals outperform monolinguals. A good example of this is looking at the performance of both groups on a Stroop test.
The “Stroop Test” measures “selective attention” by having participants look at a list of colour names written in different colours.
The objective is to identify the colours in which words are displayed rather than to repeat the word itself or vice versa.
Since we read automatically, it can be challenging to disregard the word “blue” and claim it is green. The studies found that bilinguals outperform monolinguals on the Stroop test and other tests of selective attention.
Additionally, they have a higher ability to multitask. This superiority is because bilingual individuals continuously suppress one of their languages, positively affecting other activities’ general cognitive skills. Bilingual people do better than monolingual people at many cognitive tasks, such as coming up with new ideas, following complicated instructions, and adjusting to new activities.
Although bilingualism has a wide range of cognitive benefits, there are certain downsides to speaking two languages. Compared to monolinguals, bilingual people have lower vocabularies and take longer to retrieve words from their memory.
However, in the long run, the cognitive and linguistic advantages of bilingualism significantly outweigh these two drawbacks.
So, Does Bilingualism Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?
Suppose the benefits of bilingualism extend to other aspects of cognition. In that case, we can assume bilinguals have a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease than monolinguals. Or at least a delayed onset of Alzheimer’s.
There is, in fact, evidence for that claim. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist, and her colleagues collected the histories of 184 people who had visited a memory clinic in Toronto. The average age of onset for those monolinguals in the sample who exhibited dementia symptoms was 71,4 years.
On the other hand, bilinguals acquired their diagnosis at an average age of 75.5 years. A four-year difference is significant in a study of this type, and nobody can explain it by other systemic differences between the two groups.
For example, some monolinguals reported an extra year and a half of schooling on average than their bilingual counterparts, indicating that such difference is not due to formal education.
The results of another study conducted in India were strikingly similar: bilingual individuals exhibited symptoms of dementia 4.5 years later than monolingual patients, even after controlling for potential confounders such as gender and work.
Researchers have also found that being bilingual positively affects a person’s cognitive abilities later in life, even if they learned a second language as an adult.
Ultimately, Bialystok argued that those who spoke both languages regularly and continuously benefited the most advantages from being bilingual.
As encouraging as these studies are, they have not proven how or why distinctions between bilinguals and monolinguals exist. As these studies looked back at the histories of already bilingual people, the findings can only conclusively state one thing. There was a difference between the two groups without explaining why it existed. What caused differences in age of onset between these two groups requires additional study.
Older people who participate in social activities are almost always healthier than their counterparts who rarely leave their homes and connect with others. But, we can’t say that being socially engaged prevents Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Nevertheless, even if learning a foreign language is not a miracle cure-all, it will do one thing. It will improve your ability to speak the language.