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In a recent study titled "Does Bilingualism Protect Against Dementia? A Meta-analysis" published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, John Grundy, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University, delved into the potential link between bilingualism and the delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
After a meticulous review of over 20 existing studies, the team controlled various factors such as socioeconomic status, intelligence, education, and geographic location. Their aim was to discern if bilingual individuals demonstrated a slower onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms in comparison to monolinguals.
The meta-analysis revealed that those fluent in more than one language exhibited a delay in Alzheimer's symptoms by an average of five years. However, the study did not conclusively indicate that bilingualism prevents Alzheimer's disease; it merely aids in postponing its symptoms.
As Grundy highlighted, the eventual number of Alzheimer's cases is consistent between bilinguals and monolinguals. Still, bilinguals generally have an edge in deferring the symptoms for an extended period. He found the consistency of this effect particularly striking, describing it as a "very robust finding."
Grundy emphasized that bilingualism doesn't eradicate or reverse Alzheimer's disease. Rather, it functions as a cognitive reserve, akin to engaging in a challenging profession or regular exercise. This cognitive reserve fortifies and reconfigures the brain's circuits, thereby resisting the initial symptoms of dementia until a more advanced age.
The study suggests that bilinguals utilize the posterior and subcortical regions of their brains for more efficient information processing, as opposed to monolinguals who, as they grow older, rely on the more demanding frontal circuits, potentially accelerating dementia's onset.
The World Health Organization has reported that dementia affects over 50 million individuals globally, with approximately 10 million new cases emerging annually. Alzheimer’s disease, being the predominant form of dementia, accounts for a staggering 70% of these cases.
Grundy was motivated to conduct this study due to the enormous strain Alzheimer's puts on health care systems, emphasizing the vast expenses associated with the ailment. He posits that promoting bilingualism could alleviate some of this burden, considering the cognitive challenges it presents. He likens learning and using multiple languages to creating new neural pathways, which can serve as alternative routes when others wane with age.
Grundy offers a positive outlook for monolinguals who are advancing in age and are concerned about dementia. He believes it's never too late to reap the protective advantages of bilingualism or other similar cognitive stimulants.
Grundy encourages embracing any activity that interrupts routine and jolts the cognitive system, be it bilingualism or other brain-challenging tasks. As he puts it, even minor alterations like using one's non-dominant hand for writing or opting for a different route home can initiate new neural pathways and networks, enhancing cognitive efficiency over time.
Full article: Iowa State University