It has already been shown that people who speak more than one language have a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Other research studies with brain scans have shown that bilingualism actually enlarges and improves the neural architecture of an important part of the brain—the hippocampus—in younger people.
Now just published in the medical journal Stroke, is a study from several medical centers in the UK (including the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh) and India, that bilingual people enjoy another advantage—they recover significantly better if they suffer a stroke.
The researchers studied over 600 adult men and women who had suffered a stroke, which were documented by brain scans. Their mental recovery was measured for two years following the stroke, and the researchers compared the amount of recovery with whether the patient was monolingual or bilingual.
All of the patients came from a region in southern India where bilingualism is common, but whether or not a person is bilingual does not seem to be correlated with their income or social status. In the study, 353 of the patients were bilingual, and 255 monolingual.
The principal result was that 40.5% of the bilingual patients had recovered to normal mental functioning at 2 years, but only 19.6 % of the monolinguals had normal functioning. The bilingual patients also showed better ability to pay attention and organize information by the end of the two years, and they were significantly less likely to show signs of dementia.
One area in which the bilinguals and monolinguals recovered at the same rate was, perhaps surprisingly, in their ability to speak well afterwards. However, in all other areas, the bilinguals showed a better recovery.
The researchers believe the reason bilinguals recovered better is because they have a better “cognitive reserve”. This means the mental exercise of using two different languages, and switching between the two, forces the brain to more connections between the nerve cells, making the brain overall more resistant to any challenges or traumas such as a stroke.
According to Thomas Bak, one of the authors from the University of Edinburgh, “Bilingualism makes people switch from one language to another, so while they inhibit one language, they have to activate another to communicate…this switching offers practically constant brain training which may be a factor in helping stroke patients recover.”
So if you need even another reason to work on English, Spanish, French or whatever language you are interested in, here it is.
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