Growing evidence points to greater education and mentally stimulating occupations and activities providing a cognitive reserve that enables people with developing Alzheimer's to function normally for longer. Cognitive reserve means that your brain can take more damage before it has noticeable effects. A 2006 review found that some 30% of older adults found to have Alzheimer’s when autopsied had shown no signs of it when alive.
There are two relevant concepts behind the protection some brains have: cognitive reserve (which I have mentioned on a number of occasions), and brain reserve, which is more structural. ‘Brain reserve’ encapsulates the idea that certain characteristics, such as a greater brain size, help protect the brain from damage. Longitudinal studies have provided evidence, for example, that a larger head size in childhood helps reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
While cognitive reserve has been most often associated with education, it has also been associated with occupation, bilingualism, and music. A new study provides physical evidence for how effective bilingualism is.
The Toronto study involved 40 patients with a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s, of whom half were bilingual (fluent in a second language, and consistent users of both languages throughout their lives). Bilingual and monolingual patients were matched on a test of cognitive function (the Behavioral Neurology Assessment). The two groups were similar in education levels, gender, and performance on the MMSE and the clock drawing test. The groups did differ significantly in occupational status, with the monolinguals having higher job status than the bilinguals.
Notwithstanding this similarity in cognitive performance, brain scans revealed that the bilingual group had substantially greater atrophy in the medial temporal lobe and the temporal lobe. The two groups did not differ in measures of central and frontal atrophy, however — these regions are not associated with Alzheimer’s.
In other words, bilingualism seems to specifically help protect those areas implicated in Alzheimers, and the bilinguals could take much greater damage to the brain before it impacted their cognitive performance. It is suggested that the act of constantly switching between languages, or suppressing one language in favor of other, may help train the brain to be more flexible when the need comes to compensate for damaged areas.
The findings are consistent with previous observational studies suggesting that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms by up to five years.
Valenzuela MJ and Sachdev P. 2006. Brain reserve and dementia: A systematic review. Psychological Medicine, 36(4): 441e454.