Actively speaking two languages may prevent dementia, cognitive decline

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In a new study, researchers found that using different languages actively provides brain benefits and protects people from cognitive decline associated with aging.

They found that regularly speaking two languages -and having done so throughout one’s life- contributes to cognitive reserve and delays the onset of the symptoms in cognitive decline and dementia.

The research was conducted by scientists at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and elsewhere.

Previous work had already found that the use of two or more languages throughout life could be a key factor in increasing cognitive reserve and delaying the onset of dementia; also, that it entailed advantages of memory and executive functions.

In the study, the team wanted to find out how bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve with regard to mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.

They also aimed to see if there were differences regarding the benefit it confers between the varying degrees of bilingualism, not only between monolingual and bilingual speakers.

They defined a scale of bilingualism: from people who speak one language but are exposed, passively, to another, to individuals who have an excellent command of both and use them interchangeably in their daily lives.

The researchers focused on the population of Barcelona, where there is strong variability in the use of Catalan and Spanish, with some districts that are predominantly Catalan-speaking and others where Spanish is mainly spoken.

At four hospitals in the Barcelona and metropolitan area, they recruited 63 healthy individuals, 135 patients with mild cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, and 68 people with Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent form of dementia.

They recorded their proficiency in Catalan and Spanish using a questionnaire and established the degree of bilingualism of each subject.

The team found that people with a higher degree of bilingualism were given a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment later than people who were passively bilingual.

This may be because speaking two languages and often changing from one to the other is life-long brain training.

According to the researcher, this linguistic gymnastics is related to other cognitive functions such as executive control, which is triggered when people perform several actions simultaneously, such as when driving, to help filter relevant information.

The brain’s executive control system is related to the control system of the two languages: it must alternate them, make the brain focus on one and then on the other so as not to cause one language to intrude in the other when speaking.

The team says this system, in the context of brain diseases, might offset the symptoms. So, when something does not work properly as a result of the disease, the brain has efficient alternative systems to solve it thanks to being bilingual.

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

Now, the researchers wish to verify whether bilingualism is also beneficial for other diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease.

One author of the study is Marco Calabria.

The study is published in Neuropsychologia.

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