Wouldn’t it be amazing if a few magic words could help you strengthen your memory?
Well, scientists now say that speaking the words of a second language are the only magic words you’ll ever need! In fact, by simply taking steps to learn a new language you can help delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Especially if you become bilingual.
Here’s the fascinating story…
Research published in the journal Neuropsychologia in 2018 was among the first to suggest that being bilingual could protect you against Alzheimer’s. Now, a growing body of research points to bilingualism as a very effective means for delaying or preventing Alzheimer’s disease. And researchers are taking notice.
Learning Language Creates Good Changes In Your Brain
According to the scientists, learning a language creates changes in brain structure that are linked to resilience against Alzheimer’s disease. One study reported that knowing two or more languages may lead to brain development in parts of the brain that control executive function and attention.
A later study used MRI data to examine certain brain regions linked to memory, which are known to be impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and its precursor, mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
The authors said that as far as they know, this was the first study that looked at the brain areas responsible for language and cognition, which also established a link between the appearance of these areas and memory function in a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
One thing that set this study apart from other bilingual studies was they used MRI data instead of computerized tomography scans. MRI is far more reliable. Natalie Phillips, a professor of Psychology at Concordia University in Canada, and her team used MRI to look at the brains and memory function of these groups:
- 34 multilingual participants with MCI
- 34 monolingual participants with MCI
- 13 multilingual participants with AD
- 13 monolingual participants with AD
Specifically, researchers examined the so-called medial temporal lobes – key to memory formation – along with frontal areas of the brain.
Increases All-Important Gray Matter
The team reported, “Both multi-lingual MCI and AD patients had a thicker cortex than the mono-lingual group. Results were largely replicated in our native-born Canadian MCI participants, ruling out immigration as a potential confound.”
Prof. Phillips said, “Our new study contributes to the hypothesis that having two languages exercises specific brain regions and can increase cortical thickness and gray matter density.”
She adds, “These structural differences can be seen in the brains of multilingual AD and MCI patients. Our results contribute to research that indicates that speaking more than one language is one of a number of lifestyle factors that contributes to cognitive reserve.”
Delays Cognitive Decline
Several studies have found that people who are bilingual or multilingual may experience a delay in the onset of cognitive decline linked with aging.
As one example, a study published in the journal Neurology found that bilingualism was linked to a 4.5-year delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
It’s thought that learning and using multiple languages may help to strengthen the brain and promote neural plasticity, building cognitive reserves that help offset age-related brain changes.
But it’s important to remember that learning a second language is only one of many lifestyle factors that might influence cognitive health. Other factors include regular exercise, a healthy diet, and social engagement. This suggests you might benefit even more by learning a second language in a group setting such as a community college or by practicing with those who speak the language as a first language.
Isn’t It Too Late To Learn A New Language?
No, the good news is it’s never too late to start learning a second language. It’s true that the earlier in life you start a second language, the more likely you’ll achieve fluency and strong language skills. But even learning a second language later in life has potential benefits for cognitive health. For example, studies find that starting later in life still improves cognition, memory, and cognitive flexibility.
One study found that people who started a second language as adults had better executive control functions – which is critical for managing complex tasks, decision-making, and regulating behavior – when compared to monolingual adults.
It’s important to note that no matter at what age you start learning a second language, it takes tremendous effort to reach fluency. However, the time and effort required varies from person to person based on individual factors such as language aptitude and learning style. Still, with regular practice and dedication, it is possible to progress and reap the rewards and cognitive benefits of language learning, no matter your age.