Bilinguals with Alzheimer’s do better than monoglots, according to Ellen Bialystok. “Using two languages regularly appears to rewire the brain, allowing bilingual people to make different kinds of problem-solving connections and better hold two different ideas on their minds at the same time.” This science is surprising to me, since my own anecdotal evidence after 20 years of working with bilinguals in the translation business is that many of my linguists have trouble holding onto even a single idea in their heads, but I guess empirically that’s still head-and-shoulders above the monoglots.
Bilingualism causes structural changes in the brain that appear to help bilinguals function better at a higher level even after Alzheimer’s disease starts to do its dirty work. Compared to Alzheimer’s patients who only spoke one language, bilingual Alzheimer’s patients showed symptoms five or six years later.
Bialystok, a psychologist at Toronto’s York University and the go-to gal on bilingualism’s effect on cognition, got 1000 words in the NYT recently in an interview by Claudia Dreifus:
“We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals. Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn’t have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.
“That evidence made us look at people who didn’t have normal cognitive function. In our next studies , we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.”
I think this is my wife’s secret. Since my in-laws are a bunch of demented idiots (who only read Japanese, so I can write freely), my wife is super paranoid that she is headed down the same path of senility. So on top of her bilingualism, she’s taken up the piano (Chopin is the sweetest sounding memory aid I can imagine) and recently asked me to encourage her to use her left hand instead of her right, to increase her learning activity. Which is a lot of fun, reminding someone not to use their right hand, since I’m sanctioned to nag my spouse, and with endless opportunity to do so. Findings to date? It seems to be working. She’s still better at finding my keys than I am. But what does that say about me? Forget it.