The York University Magazine

YorkU Fall 2014

The alumni magazine of York University

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16 YorkU Fall 2014 how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Among the many benefits of being bilingual, her research shows that the everyday use of a second language appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. According to Bialystok, the more proficient you become in a second language the better, and every little bit helps. Just because you may not be profoundly bilingual, that doesn't mean the learning is wasted. Scientists have long wondered how it is that speaking two languages to infants allows them to learn both in the same time that it takes other infants to learn one. Bialystok says their brains seem to be "flexible" or better able to multitask, and that as they grow up their brains show better "executive control" over their own thoughts, which is key to higher learning. Over several recent studies, Bialystok and a team of research colleagues looked at more than 500 patients with Alzheimer's disease, all of whom showed the same degree of impairment at the time of disease diagnosis. Half were bilingual – that is, they spoke two languages regularly for most of their lives. The rest were monolingual. Bialystok's study found that the bilingual patients were diagnosed with Alzheimer's symptoms four to five years later than those who spoke only one language. In other words, bilinguals were found to be four to five years older than monolinguals at comparable points of neurological impairment. While being bilingual does nothing to prevent Alzheimer's from striking, researchers found that once the disease begins to attack the brain, the years of robust executive control gained by being bilingual act as a buffer against disease onset. "The symp- toms don't become apparent as quickly as in the monolingual group," says Bialystok. "The bilingual patients were better able to cope with the disease's progression." While the brains of bilingual patients did show deteriora- tion, researchers believe that the use of more than one language equips them with compensatory skills that keep symptoms like memory loss and confusion in check. Learning a language is one method of keeping your brain fit, but it doesn't have to be the only one, says Bialystok. Crossword puzzles are also valuable, as is anything that exercises the brain, such as mind puzzles available as downloads on smartphones and tablets. "And if you start to learn any new skills at 40, 50, 60, you are certainly keeping your brain active," she says. "Exercising your brain throughout life contributes to what's called 'cognitive reserve,' the overall ability to withstand the declines of aging and disease. Brain exercise is one important tool in healthy aging, along with exercise, diet and other lifestyle choices." Y Ellen Bialystok: The hidden power of bilingualism

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