Bilingualism can hold back symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but can it also lead to faster decline further down the road?
Benefits of Bilingualism
There are a large range of benefits when it comes to bilingualism and the brain. The positive outcomes can be anything from shortening recovery times from a stroke to preventing cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s.
New insights have been discovered, such as knowing a second language can delay the onset of the disease. Although, later on in life it can accelerate the deterioration into severe Alzheimer’s.
Research on Alzheimer’s and Bilingualism
Canada’s York University carried out research in regards to investigating how bilingualism can boost our “cognitive reserve” and the meaning behind it for Alzheimer’s. “Cognitive reserve” refers to the brain’s resilience against neurological damage. People with greater cognitive reserve can mitigate the impacts of Alzheimer’s in their later years.
A five-year study was done by the university with 158 patients with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment. These subjects were matched on age, education and cognitive levels, and then categorized as either bilingual with a high cognitive reserve, or monolingual with a low cognitive reserve.
Every six months the team would assess the cognition levels of the groups from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. They found that the monolingual group advanced in their condition in 2.6 years, while the bilingual group progressed in only 1.8 years.
This further proves the idea that bilinguals can avoid symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but only for so long. Both groups started out with the same level of cognitive function, but the Alzheimer’s pathology was already building up in the bilingual group in greater amounts behind the scenes.
The lead investigator of the study says, “Imagine sandbags holding back the floodgates of a river, at some point the river is going to win,” in regards to bilingualism and Alzheimer’s. The cognitive reserve allowed people with bilingualism to show no evidence of substantial pathology in regards to cognitive impairment. When the cognitive reserve can’t help them anymore they go down faster than someone with monolingualism.
The Upside of Bilingualism
While this rapid decline into Alzheimer’s might seem like bad news, the upside is that the greater cognitive reserve enables bilingual individuals to live without symptoms of the disease for longer, until that vital threshold is crossed.
Given that there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s or dementia, the very best you can hope for is keeping these people functioning so that they live independently so that they don’t lose connection with family and friends.
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