This week I had a wonderful almost-surprise visit from a friend named Sandy Disner who is a professor of linguistics at USC. On the way to the airport we started talking about language acquisition in children. Just as we reached the drop-off point, Sandy told me that research shows being bilingual forestalls Alzheimer’s four years. With my family history – a father who had Alzheimer’s and a mother with dementia, I got really interested and texted her later to find out the name of the researcher.
Canadian neuroscientist Ellen Bialystock used MRIs to study older, bilingual adults in various stages of Alzheimer’s. In an article in the Manchester Guardian Bialystock reports, “We did a study at the Baycrest geriatric centre in Toronto in which we identified 200 clear cases of Alzheimer’s disease and looked at the patients’ backgrounds to see if they were mono- or bilingual. Then we looked at how old they were when the family noticed something was wrong and when they were formally diagnosed. In both cases the bilinguals were significantly older, by about four years.” She goes on to say, “We did a second study with 20 monolinguals and 20 bilinguals, all about 75 years old. They had all been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and they were at exactly the same cognitive level, so you would expect them to have the same level of damage in the medial-temporal cortex. But when we looked at their brains, we found that the bilinguals had significantly more damage than the monolinguals. They had more advanced Alzheimer’s but they were functioning at the same level. That’s the advantage: they could cope with the disease better.”
Not all of us have the opportunity to be bilingual, but Bialystock goes on to say that this research suggests that learning a language late in life is probably beneficial “not because of bilingualism but because learning a language is a stimulating mental activity and a good way to exercise your brain.”
It is exciting to learn that there are things you can do to slow the process of dementia taking over your brain. Lori Patin knows this intuitively and is fighting back. Parkinson’s can cause dementia as the disease progresses, but she is doing everything she can to prevent that from happening. While she exercises her body four hours a day, she also does regular brain workouts. She plays bridge twice a week because this card game requires you to remember all the cards that are played. Just as she strengthens her muscle by lifting weights, she improves her mental capacity by playing bridge and other games that require memorization.