Speaking languages protects against dementia, study finds

Learning languages could prevent age-related decline in brain function. Picture: Michael Gillen
Learning languages could prevent age-related decline in brain function. Picture: Michael Gillen
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Being able to speak another language protects against dementia and other age-related decline in brain power, a new study found.

People who are bilingual are better at saving brain power and less prone to be distracted as their brains get wired.

So they use less of the brain than those who speak just one language.

And they rely less on the frontal areas of the brain which are vulnerable to ageing explaining why the brains of bilinguals are better equipped at staving off the signs of cognitive ageing or dementia.

Professor Ana Inés Ansaldo at the University of Montreal compared the functional brain connections in monolingual and bilingual elderly people.

She found years of bilingualism change how the brain carries out tasks that require concentrating on one piece of information without becoming distracted by other information.

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As a result the brain was more efficient and economical with its resources.

Dr Ansaldo said: “After years of daily practice managing interference between two languages, bilinguals become experts at selecting relevant information and ignoring information that can distract from a task.

“In this case, bilinguals showed higher connectivity between visual processing areas located at the back of the brain.

“This area is specialised in detecting the visual characteristics of objects and therefore is specialised in the task used in this study.

“These data indicate that the bilingual brain is more efficient and economical, as it recruits fewer regions and only specialised regions.”

She added this gave bilinguals a double advantage in cognitive powers as they age

They had more centralised and specialised functional connections saving resources compared to the multiple and more diverse brain areas allocated by monolinguals to accomplish the same task.

Bilinguals also achieved the same result by not using the brain’s frontal regions and Dr Dr Ansaldo added: “This might cause the bilingual brain to be better equipped to face cognitive ageing.

“We have observed that bilingualism has a concrete impact on brain function and that this may have a positive impact on cognitive ageing.

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“We now need to study how this function translates to daily life, for example, when concentrating on one source of information instead of another, which is something we have to do every day.

“And we have yet to discover all the benefits of bilingualism.”

The study published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics asked monolingual and bilingual pensioners to perform a task involving focusing on visual information while ignoring spatial information.

The networks between different brain areas were compared as people did the task.

It found monolinguals recruited a larger circuit with multiple connections, whereas bilinguals recruited a smaller circuit that was more appropriate for the required information.

The monolingual brain allocated a number of regions linked to visual and motor function and interference control, which are located in the frontal lobes.

This meant the monolingual brain needs to recruit multiple brain regions to do the task.