Are bilingual brains healthier?

Being truly bilingual, that is speaking more than one language on a regular basis, has its advantages. Aside from the practical ones, such as possibly being more employable, there are other perks. Bilingualism appears to be brain-friendly.
As previously discussed in this blog our experiences changes our brain. This is referred to as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. Experience can change our brain for the worse, but experience that has a beneficial effect on the brain will ultimately make it better able to withstand the ravages of aging, disease and injury. Living life with more than one language appears to be such an experience.

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It was once thougt that it would be confusing for children to be raised in a bilingual environment. This has proven to be wrong. Bilingual children are perfectly able to keep the two languages separate. Additionally they do better on a variety of tests, linguistic as well as non-linguistic, than do their monolingual counterparts. This was in fact demonstrated about 50 years ago and more recent research has supported this early research. But there are also advantages for adult bilinguals. Research has shown that bilingualism makes us better able to compensate for the effects of neuropathology. One recent study showed that bilinguals showed more resistance to the symptoms of Alzheimer disease than monolinguals that were comparable in every other way (e.g. education, occupational status, gender).

Craik, Bialystok and Freedman have pointed out (p. 1726) that it is particularly interesting to study brain plasticity and bilingualism because “in the vast majority of cases people become bilingual not because they are naturally gifted language learners, but because of circumstances that require it”. Thus it is not possible to say that bilinguals do better on tests or get dementia later on in life because they have better brains.

What explains the bilingual advantage?
It has been hypothesized that both languages are somewhat activated at all times in the bilingual brain. This creates more elevated attentional load than in monolinguals and explains, for example, why bilinguals are slower in retrieving words than monolinguals. However, what bilinguals gain is, for example, better inhibition and attention. In short, their executive control is better than in monolinguals. Being bilingual provides you with a constant exercise in cognitive flexibility. We know that aging disproportionately affects the frontal lobes which is exactly the part of the brain that controls cognitive flexibility and this could explain why elderly bilinguals are more resistant to the symptoms of Alzheimer dementia. So go ahead! Stuff your brain with words!

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M. & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 240-250.

Craik, F. I. M. , Bialystok, E. & Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 75, 1726-1729.

Richards, M. & Deary, I. J. (2005). A life course approach to cognitive reserve: A model for cognitive aging and development. Annals of Neurology, 58, 617-622.

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