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Esther Heerema, MSW

Study Demonstrates Delay of Alzheimer’s Symptoms in Bilinguals

By October 20, 2011

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In light of Alzheimer's prevention, scientists have long advised to keep your brain active by doing puzzles and other mental exercises. The general consensus is that while puzzles can't prevent Alzheimer's, it's possible that the symptoms of Alzheimer's may be delayed in mentally fit, active brains.

Recently, a related idea was researched in a Toronto, Canada study conducted by Tom Schweizer, Fergus I.M. Craik, Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Rather than puzzles, these researchers focused on bilingualism and the possible effect that utilizing two languages might have on cognitive functioning in Alzheimer's.

According to the article, previous studies by Bialystok and Craik had shown a delay in Alzheimer's symptoms by as much as five years in individuals who were bilingual. In this recent study, the researchers studied the cat scans of both bilingual and single language speakers who had been diagnosed with probably Alzheimer's and who demonstrated similar levels of brain functioning. The participant groups took into account age, education, jobs and gender to ensure that any difference identified could not be attributed to those factors.

This study found that the brains of those who were bilingual showed far more physical damage related to Alzheimer's than the brains of single language speakers, even though both groups performed at similar levels on three different cognitive tests.

What does this mean? The bilingual individuals were somehow able to compensate or utilize different paths in their brains despite having significantly more physical damage in their brains. It appears that their Alzheimer's had been developing for some time in their brains and yet the symptoms of Alzheimer's were far less progressed than would have been expected.

So, while I'm not giving up puzzles and brain exercises, I'm definitely wishing I had paid more attention in Spanish class.

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