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Study: Bilingualism wards off symptoms of dementia

April 2, 2012
by Kevin Kolus
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Speaking more than one language may translate to better mental health and possibly offer protection from the symptoms of dementia, according to research published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

In the study, researchers from York University in Toronto also suggest that increased diversity in the world’s population may have a positive impact on the resiliency of the adult brain.

"Previous studies have established that bilingualism has a beneficial effect on cognitive development in children," said lead study author Ellen Bialystok. "In our paper, we reviewed recent studies using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods to examine the effects of bilingualism on cognition in adults."

Researchers said the bilingual mind’s need to monitor two languages in order to select the appropriate language recruits brain regions that are critical for general attention and cognitive control. Using these cognitive control networks for bilingual language processing may reconfigure and strengthen them, perhaps enhancing "mental flexibility"—the ability to adapt to ongoing changes and process information efficiently, researchers said.

Studies also suggest that bilingualism improves "cognitive reserve,” the protective effect that stimulating mental or physical activity has on cognitive functioning in healthy aging. Cognitive reserve can also postpone the onset of symptoms in those suffering from dementia. This is supported by studies showing that bilinguals experience onset symptoms of dementia years later than monolinguals, researchers noted.

"Our conclusion is that lifelong experience in managing attention to two languages reorganizes specific brain networks, creating a more effective basis for executive control and sustaining better cognitive performance throughout the lifespan," Bialystok said.

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