The ability to speak several languages can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, but when the lesions gain the upper hand, the decline is faster.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself when stimulated. This ability to adapt improves the cognitive reserve and causes our brain to find new neural connections to be more efficient. Bilingualism and the ability to speak several languages is the best activity to stimulate our brain and play with its plasticity to improve its cognitive reserve. Researchers have just discovered that speaking several languages helps to slow the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s by strengthening our brain. Their findings have been published in the journal Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders.
A postponed diagnosis, but a disease that progresses faster
The researchers followed 158 people for five years from the time they were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. A new diagnosis was made every six months to measure the progress of the disease. The researchers’ first observation is that bilingual patients were first diagnosed with cognitive impairment at an average age of 77.8 years, compared to 75.5 years for other patients. The second observation of the researchers was that the disease develops much faster in bilingual people at 1.8 years after the initial diagnosis than in monolingual people at 2.6 years.
To explain this phenomenon and the influence of bilingualism on the brain and neurodegenerative diseases, Ellen Bialystok, the lead author of the study, compares this phenomenon to a dam. “Imagine sandbags holding the sluices of a river. Eventually, the river will win. The cognitive reserve holds back the flood. When they were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, they already had significant pathology. But it did not appear because they were still functional thanks to the cognitive reserve”.
Living more and better
At present, there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Several strategies have been recommended to curb the disease, such as aging alongside an optimistic person, physical activity or taking a lithium injection. It seems that bilingualism helps to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and therefore to live longer in good health. “Since there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s or dementia, the best that can be hoped for is to keep these people functional so that they can live independently and not lose contact with family and friends. This is a big deal,” concludes Ellen Bialystok.