Even if you only learn a new language later in life it might help you develop more neuronal connections and strengthen your “cognitive reserve” that helps you cope with brain damage.
Foreign languages challenge the mind and compelled the brain to form significantly more connections. This means it can reroute neural circuits much more easily if damaged.
At one time it was thought that women recovered from strokes better than men because their brain hemispheres were more generalised than men’s i.e. men seemed to have a more dominant hemisphere. You can se the reasoning behind that idea.
In this latest study over 600 stroke patients in Hyderabad, India had their records analysed. This is an area where the majority of people spek two or more languages.
41% of the patients who were bilingual had kept their memory functions unimpaired compared with only 20% who spoke only one language.
Being multi-lingual made no difference when it came to recovering loss of speech however. There was no difference no matter how many languages were spoken.
The study also showed that what you see on a MRI scan and what you get in real life can be different. Two people with the same level of atrophy in their brain because of loss of neurone due to dementia can function quite differently mentally.
“People who are very active, do physical exercise, but also do a lot of mental activity tend to perform better, so if your mind and body are active you’re able to cope better with potential damage that diseases can bring” Said Dr Bak who led the study.
150,000 Brits suffer a stroke every year so these findings are important. Scientists already knew that people who are more mentally active throughout their lives are better at dealing with a range of neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s.
There are studies from Belgium and Nigeria which show that bilingual people tend to have dementia diagnosed as much as five year’s later than people who do not speak any foreign languages. The same effect was also found in American nuns but I’m not sure why. (No jokes about speaking in tongues please).
Dr Bak also found that it’s never too late to learn a language. In his unpublished research he found that started to learn a new language as late as 78 had an even bigger protective effect than learning the language at a younger age.
Story in the Times; research published in Stroke journal
I posted on the value of learning a foreign language in relation to dementia four years ago. Click here to read it.