Published on: May 7, 2017
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Knowing more than one language can build cognitive reserve.
Ellen Bialystok, Toronto’s York University Professor of Psychology and Rotman Research Institute Associate Scientist, was recently named an Officer of the Order of Canada (O.C.) for her contributions to our understanding of the “cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and for opening up new avenues of research in her field,” according to the Governor General.
Dr. Bialystok believes that her admission into the O.C. will have a positive influence on education into the benefits of bilingualism.
“Canada is pretty sympathetic to bilingualism. But outside of Canada, there’s great antipathy [towards bilingualism] and it’s a constant battle … to persuade people that bilingualism is a good thing. I see this award as being helpful in the education battle, as it gives credibility to [my work] and explains to people that
these are big questions,
and important issues regarding brain health.”
Much of her current work focuses on neuroimaging and the neurological bases of bilingualism. “Our research shows that across the lifespan, bilinguals are better than monolinguals at tasks that require controlling attention and holding several goals in mind at once. This includes things like multi-tasking, avoiding distraction while performing a task, and shifting between tasks. For adults, even if the tasks are performed to the same level of proficiency, monolinguals and bilinguals use different brain regions.
In other words, monolinguals and bilinguals are using their brains differently. One difference is that bilinguals need less brain ‘activation’ or energy to achieve the same levels as monolinguals. And in some studies, there is also evidence that the brains themselves are different, with bilingual brains having more density than monolingual brains.”
Dr. Bialystok has spent decades investigating the cognition-bilingualism connection, initially focusing on children then shifting to older adults.
“I had been studying the effect of bilingualism on children for about 30 years. But at some point, for this research to really move forward, it needed to move into a different context and to include older adults and ultimately … patients. Because there was no other way to put together a story that made sense across the whole lifespan,” she says. “To make this a real study about brains and minds, it had to be recast in how we develop cognitive reserve.*”
Recent evidence shows that the “cognitive reserve” that accumulates from engagement in stimulating activities can not only boost cognitive performance throughout life, but also protect against symptoms of dementia in the presence of neuropathology such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Does the additional cognitive effort required to manage two languages contribute to cognitive reserve? Ongoing research suggests that it does. On average, lifelong bilinguals diagnosed with dementia demonstrate symptoms of the disease four years later than comparable monolinguals, with a similar rate of decline for both groups after the diagnosis. This finding has dramatic implications for public health, and a growing body of research examines
the emergence and decline of monolingual and bilingual patients with dementia in more detail.
* Cognitive reserve is the extra protection against cognitive decline afforded to people with greater intellectual enrichment.
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