How being bilingual can help delay and manage chronic illnesses

Statistics show that 43% of the population speak two languages fluently and 13% speak at least three. The benefits are vast when it comes to living day-to-day life, from having an advantage at work to connecting with more people globally. However, recent research has also shown that being bilingual is actually good for your health. It promotes overall brain health as it can help delay the onset of chronic illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

Neurodegenerative Diseases

Neurodegenerative disease (ND) is an umbrella term for a host of chronic disorders that affect the structure or function of neurons. Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is an ND that primarily targets memory and basic reasoning skills. Healthline explains that it is a progressive disease, which starts as a mild cognitive impairment and gradually worsens. Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and Huntington’s Disease (HD) are also progressive illnesses. PD affects the motor functions of the patient, which can cause uncontrollable tremors, stiffness, and difficulty in moving. Meanwhile, HD causes the slow breakdown of the neurons which can manifest into a wider range of symptoms including cognitive, movement, and psychiatric disorders.

All these diseases are incurable and can progress to other related disorders. Dementia is another umbrella term for persistent symptoms that affect normal functions of the brain such as memory and speech. It can occur with age or as a side effect of these illnesses. AD patients usually live for 4-8 years after diagnosis, while the life expectancy of HD sufferers can reach 20 years after diagnosis. PD patients can live as long as the general population provided that other complications are managed.

Bilingualism in patients

Bilingualism has been found to give people with NDs an advantage over monolingual patients. A new study by psychologist Natalie Phillips involved tests on areas of the brain responsible for memory in patients with AD. She found that multilingual patients had thicker cortex (or outer layer) on the frontal lobe, which is believed to be an indicator of intelligence. Their cognitive function is not as compromised as those who only speak one language. They were able to fight through the disease longer to the point of delaying it by 4-5 years, as the study suggests. Another Indian study even found that bilinguals recover fasted after a stroke.

This is good news for patients with PD or HD, too. The frontal lobe is affected as well in both diseases which cause cognitive dysfunction. The average PD or HD patient will experience their cells slowly degenerating in this region of the brain, causing it to lose structure and function permanently. Some patients cannot remember their own names, form cohesive sentences, and lose a sense of time.

Cognitive Reserve

Studies on the benefits of bilingualism focusing on brain health generally mention cognitive reserve. Simply put, cognitive reserve pertains to the brain’s ability to cope with damage, and it is measure on a case-by-case basis. Some people have very low reserves and quickly succumb to injury, while others are more resistant. Very Well Health notes that keeping the mind active affects its ability to manage the damage. Speaking two languages significantly contributes to this ability.

As polyglots constantly switch between languages, they exercise the executive control system of the brain. It’s responsible for recall, focus, multi-tasking, and inhibition. Inhibition is important because they have to suppress one language while speaking in another so that they don’t mix the two up. They also need a more expansive vocabulary and have to recall more words than monolinguals. All this mental stimulation can effectively increase cognitive reserve and make the brain more resistant to damage caused by NDs. They have greater chances of compensating for the cognitive impairment.

Here in the US, the healthcare industry is already facing the challenge presented by an increase in cases of dementia and other related ailments. This goes on top of the inadequate supply of medical professionals. Maryville University pointed to a rising demand in the Nursing field due in large part to the need for healthcare providers for the aging population. Statistics show that there were 50 million citizens aged 65 and above in 2016. In said age range, it’s estimated that 5.7 million have AD, 1 million have PD, and 30,000 have HD.

Research on bilingualism has the potential to be groundbreaking in terms of helping ND patients cope with everyday life. There is no age limit for learning a new language. Even if seniors don’t become proficient in speaking a new language, the learning process can aid in keeping their brains active.

If you want to help the elderly exercise their minds, check out Lingo Hut’s previous post on language learning. You never know how life-changing it can be.

Article exclusively written for

By Catriona Grace

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