Posted by Neelam Goswami on February 19, 2011

Knowing different languages is sure helpful for a person in many ways. It has been well established in an earlier research that learning and speaking a foreign language provides constant brain exercise to the frontal lobes, the area of the brain right behind the forehead that focuses our attention, helps us ignore distractions, and make decisions.

A number of other studies have also suggested that speaking more than one language may help build a Cognitive Reserve that protects us against cognitive decline.

Now a new brain research suggests that bilingualism gives a boost to the brain, can improve one’s cognitive skills and delay the onset of dementia.

Bilingualism boosts your brain power
According to the study that compared bilingual individuals with people who spoke only one language, learning a second language and speaking it regularly protects the brain against cognitive decline and can protect against Alzheimer's disease, which is the worst phase of dementia.

"Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system," said study lead author Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto.

"We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals. They perform at a higher level. It won't stop them getting Alzheimer's disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer."

Study details
To arrive at their findings, Bialystok and colleagues looked at 211 Canadians suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Of the patients, 102 were bilingual and 109 spoke just one language fluently.

After examining the age at which the patients' cognitive impairment had started, Bialystok and co-researchers found that the bilingual patients had been diagnosed with dementia an average of 4.3 years later, and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later as compared to monolingual patients.

"What we've been able to show is that in these patients... all of whom have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and are all at the same level of impairment, the bilinguals on average are four to five years older -- which means that they've been able to cope with the disease," Bialystok said.

The study also showed that the effect was strongest for people who were fluent in two languages since childhood.

Bilinguals are better at multitasking
Bilinguals’ ability to slip into another language easily makes them more practiced at multi-tasking, meaning doing two or more things at once.

According to Dr Bialystok, fluency in two languages boosts one of the most important parts of the brain known as the executive control system.

“We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals,” she said. “They perform at a higher level. It won't stop you getting Alzheimer's disease but they can cope with the disease for longer.”

She added: “Switching between languages is a stimulating activity - it is like carrying out brain exercises which builds up higher levels of what we call brain or cognitive reserve.

“It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank.”

Bialystok’s team presented their findings on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC.

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