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Hablas Español? Research Points Toward the Benefits of a Second Language

By | February 9th, 2018

The advice to bolster brain health is varied: One day it’s to consume olive oil by the tablespoon, the next it’s to get in 10,000 steps per day. Generally, doctors say, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain—and that means controlling diet and exercise.

But what about training your brain? Can memory games and crossword puzzles ward off dementia? While a lot of scientific studies point to mind games not being effective, there is one brain exercise that a new study says can help: being fluent in a second language.

Bilingualism was shown to correspond with healthier brain structure, according to a study conducted by researchers at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

“Our new study contributes to the hypothesis that having two languages exercises specific brain regions and can increase cortical thickness and grey matter density,” said Natalie Phillips, a professor in the Department of Psychology. “And it extends these findings by demonstrating that these structural differences can be seen in the brains of multilingual [Alzheimer’s disease] and [mild cognitive impairment] patients.”

Study authors used a high-resolution, whole-brain MRI to measure the brain’s thickness and density in certain areas that control language, cognition and memory. They only took measurements of patients who already had a mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s diagnosis, comparing people who spoke just one language with those who spoke more than one. Their research showed that, while speaking two languages may not prevent Alzheimer’s, it may help build up cognitive reserve that can slow down the onset of symptoms.

“Our study seems to suggest that multilingual people are able to compensate for [Alzheimer’s disease]-related tissue loss by accessing alternative networks or other brain regions for memory processing,” said Phillips. “We’re actively investigating that hypothesis now.”

The study builds on previous research from last year that found bilingualism translated to a five-year delay in the development of Alzheimer’s when compared to people who only spoke one language.

“Brain scans showed that lifelong bilinguals have stronger connections between certain brain areas compared to those who only speak one language—this appears to allow their brains to cope better with damage before they start to show outward signs of dementia,” said Clare Walton, research manager at the Alzheimer’s Society in the U.K.

This study was published in the journal Neuropsycholgia.

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