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Professor Ellen Bialystok's report on Alzheimer's and bilingualism makes world headlines

Professor Ellen Bialystok's report on Alzheimer's and bilingualism makes world headlines

Mastering a second language can pump up your brain in ways that seem to delay getting Alzheimer's disease later on, scientists said Friday, wrote The Associated Press and The Canadian Press Feb. 18 [via], in a story that was featured in reports by more than 300 newspapers, television stations and radio stations around the world:

The more proficient you become, the better, but "every little bit helps," said Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University [Faculty of Health].

Much of the study of bilingualism has centered on babies, as scientists wondered why simply speaking to infants in two languages allows them to learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. Their brains seem to become more flexible, better able to multi-task. As they grow up, their brains show better "executive control," a system key to higher functioning – as Bialystok puts it, "the most important part of your mind."

Bialystok studied 450 Alzheimer's patients, all of whom showed the same degree of impairment at the time of diagnosis. Half are bilingual – they've spoken two languages regularly for most of their lives. The rest are monolingual.

The bilingual patients had Alzheimer's symptoms and were diagnosed between four and five years later than the patients who spoke only one language, she told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Being bilingual does nothing to prevent Alzheimer's disease from striking. But once the disease does begin its silent attack, those years of robust executive control provide a buffer so that symptoms don't become apparent as quickly, Bialystok said. "They've been able to cope with the disease," she said.

Her work supports an earlier study from other researchers that also found a protective effect.

But people don't have to master a new language to benefit some, Bialystok said. Exercising your brain throughout life contributes to what's called "cognitive reserve", the overall ability to withstand the declines of aging and disease. That's the basis of the use-it-or-lose-it advice from aging experts, who also recommend such things as crossword puzzles to keep your brain nimble. "If you start to learn at 40, 50, 60, you are certainly keeping your brain active," she said.

Newspapers and online news sites around the world reported on Bialystok’s lecture remarks, including media across Canada, the US, Australia, Bangladesh, China, England, Iran, Ireland, India, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Qatar, South Africa, Scotland and Wales.

Bialystok’s study was also features in stories on radio and television stations around the world, including major networks in the US and Canada.

Republished courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.