New paper supports bilingualism as a tool to curb dementia and cognitive decline

Image of the brain
Cross section Image of the brain

As the global population continues to age, there is a rising risk of cognitive decline and dementia. According to statistics, a one-year delay in symptom onset would reduce worldwide prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in 2050 by approximately nine million cases, and a delay of two years would decrease prevalence by 22 million. 

Ellen Bialystok
Ellen Bialystok

With few drug therapies available, experts say it is key for aging individuals to engage in activities that can maintain brain function and contribute to cognitive reserve. In a paper released in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, bilingualism expert Ellen Bialystok, a Department of Psychology professor at York University’s Faculty of Health, says bilingualism is one such activity that has been shown via several studies to have an impact. 

“Bilingualism is a promising avenue to maintaining cognitive health in older age and averting the devastating consequences of cognitive decline and dementia,” says Bialystok. 

Bialystok is a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology and Walter Gordon Research Chair of Lifespan Cognitive Development at York University. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Officer of the Order of Canada, she is a recognized expert on the effect of bilingualism on cognitive and linguistic processing across the lifespan.

In her latest paper “Bilingualism: Pathway to Cognitive Reserve” she provides insight from numerous studies which show how bilingualism can contribute to cognitive reserve. The paper outlines cognitive reserve as the most promising avenue to maintaining cognitive health in older age and averting cognitive decline and dementia.

She says being bilingual is associated with:

  • better cognitive performance than would be predicted by brain structure in older adults;
  • later evidence of symptoms of dementia compared to monolinguals;
  • greater pathology for comparable levels of dementia as found for monolinguals; and
  • more rapid decline of cognitive function in more advanced stages of dementia.

“There is also evidence that bilingualism enhances vocational opportunities that lead to financial advantages. But most important is that bilingualism is the glue that connects people to each other – individuals to strangers across global boundaries and children to their families and ancestors from far away countries. Both types of connection lead to a more integrated world and the possibility for better mutual understanding,” writes Bialystok.

Her paper concludes by saying that given the possibility that bilingualism may contribute to cognitive reserve, the implications for policy are clear: education systems at all levels should offer and promote foreign language training, community organizations should support and maintain the use of immigrant languages by offering goods and services in those languages, and government policy should acknowledge linguistic diversity and encourage societal multilingualism.