Photo credit: Pompeu Fabra University – Barcelona

Languages ​​not only enable us to communicate with others, but are also our instrument for conveying our thoughts, identity, knowledge and our seeing and understanding the world. Mastering more than one enriches us and provides a door to other cultures, as a team of researchers led by scientists from the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) found. Active use of languages ​​offers neurological benefits and protects us from the cognitive decline associated with aging.

In a study published in the journal Neuropsychologia, the researchers conclude that speaking two languages ​​regularly – throughout life – contributes to cognitive reserve and delays the onset of symptoms associated with cognitive decline and dementia.

“We have seen that the prevalence of dementia in countries where more than one language is spoken is 50% lower than in regions where the population only uses language for communication,” explains researcher Marco Calabria, a member of the research group Speech production and bilingualism at the UPF and the Cognitive NeuroLab at the UOC and Professor of Health Sciences, also at the UOC.

Previous work had already established that the use of two or more languages ​​throughout life can be a key factor in increasing cognitive reserve and delaying the onset of dementia. also that it brought benefits to memory and executive functions.

‘We wanted to find out about the mechanism by which bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, and if there are differences in the benefits it provides between different levels of bilingualism, not just between monolingual and bilingual Speakers. ” points to Calabria, which led the study.

In contrast to other studies, the researchers defined a scale of bilingualism: from people who speak one language but are passively exposed to another, to people who have excellent command of both and who use them interchangeably in their daily lives. To create this scale, they took into account various variables such as: B. the working age of the second language, its use or whether they were used alternatively in the same context.

The researchers focused on the population of Barcelona, ​​where the use of Catalan and Spanish is very different. Some districts speak mostly Catalan, others mostly Spanish. “We wanted to take advantage of this variability and instead of comparing monolingual and bilingual speakers, we looked at whether there was a level of bilingualism in Barcelona, ​​where everyone is bilingual to different degrees, that offered neuroprotective benefits,” explains Calabria.

Bilingualism and Alzheimer’s

In four hospitals in Barcelona and the metropolitan area, they recruited 63 healthy people, 135 patients with mild cognitive impairments such as memory loss and 68 people with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. They recorded their knowledge of Catalan and Spanish on a questionnaire and determined the level of bilingualism for each subject. They then correlated this grade with the age at which the subjects’ neurological diagnosis was made and the onset of symptoms.

To better understand the origin of the cognitive benefit, they asked participants to perform various cognitive tasks, mainly focusing on the executive control system, as previous studies had indicated that this was the source of the benefit. In total, participants performed five tasks, including memory and cognitive control tests, over two sessions.

“We have seen that people with a higher degree of bilingualism were later diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment than people who were passively bilingual,” explains Calabria, who is likely to have a lifetime of speaking two languages, and often from one to the other switch. long brain training. According to the researcher, this linguistic gymnastics is related to other cognitive functions, such as: B. the executive control that is triggered when we perform several actions at the same time, B. while driving to filter relevant information.

The brain’s executive control system is related to the control system of the two languages: it has to alternate them, focus the brain on one and then the other, so that when speaking one language does not invade the other.

“This system could compensate for symptoms related to neurodegenerative diseases. So if something does not work properly as a result of the disease, the brain has efficient alternative systems to solve it, since it is bilingual,” explains Calabria. We have seen that the more you use two languages ​​and the better your language skills, the greater the neuroprotective benefit. Indeed, active bilingualism is an important predictor of delaying the onset of symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, a preclinical phase of the Alzheimer’s disease because it contributes to cognitive reserve. “

Now the researchers want to check whether bilingualism is also beneficial for other diseases such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease.

Actively speaking two languages ​​protects against cognitive impairment

More information:
Marco Calabria et al., Active bilingualism delays the onset of mild cognitive impairment, Neuropsychologia (2020). DOI: 10.1016 / j.neuropsychologia.2020.107528

Provided by Pompeu Fabra University – Barcelona

Quote: Active speaking of two languages ​​protects against cognitive decline (2020, November 16), accessed on November 16, 2020 from

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