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Multilingualism (but not always bilingualism) delays the onset of Alzheimer disease: evidence from a bilingual community.

Bloomfield Centre for Research in Aging, Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research, and Jewish General Hospital/McGill University Memory Clinic, Jewish General Hospital, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Alzheimer disease and associated disorders (Impact Factor: 2.88). 01/2010; 24(2):118-25. DOI: 10.1097/WAD.0b013e3181ca1221
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT A recent paper by Bialystok et al in Neuropsychologia (vol. 45, pgs. 459 to 464) suggested that early bilingualism produced a statistically significant 4.1-year delay in onset of memory loss symptoms in older individuals with Alzheimer disease, possibly reflecting an increase in the cognitive reserve of these individuals. That study focused on multilingual elderly patients of whom 90% were immigrants. Our memory clinic, in Montreal Canada, has the advantage of having a large set of individuals who are either multilingual immigrants to Canada, or who are nonimmigrants but raised in both official languages of Canada--French and English. We thus attempted to replicate the above findings using a larger cohort in a different setting. We examined age at diagnosis of Alzheimer disease and age at symptom onset for all unilingual versus multilingual participants, and then for those who were nonimmigrant English/French bilinguals. Overall, we found a small but significant protective effect of more than 2 languages spoken, but we found no significant benefit in bilinguals overall in relation to age at diagnosis or age at symptom onset. However, in the immigrant group, the results mirrored those of Bialystok et al with 2 or more languages delaying the diagnosis of Alzheimer disease by almost 5 years. A trend toward the same effect was also seen in nonimmigrants whose first language was French. In contrast, in nonimmigrants whose first language was English, no such effect was found. These results are discussed in relation to the earlier findings and the theory of cognitive reserve.

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    ABSTRACT: The relation between bilingualism and cognition is informative about the connection between language and mind. From the perspective of language, the question is how bilingualism might help or hinder cognition – narrowly interpreted here as executive function. From the perspective of higher cognition, the question is what kinds of experiences improve executive function. Reported cognitive benefits from bilingualism range from none to substantial as a function of age, type of bilingualism (e.g., life-long balanced vs later-onset or infrequent use of the other language), syntactic relation between the two languages, socio-economic and immigrant status, task, and laboratory. To understand the variability and inconsistencies in results with bilingualism, I analyze concepts of executive function and cognitive reserve and examine the range of factors (such as active video game playing, education, musical training, and aerobic exercise) that are known to correlate with or to improve executive function. I suggest that a) “executive function” is a complex set of cognitive processes, the components of which are sometimes minimally correlated with each other, depending on the task; b) bilingualism is inconsistently correlated with superior executive function and delayed onset of dementia; c) all speakers (mono- or bilingual) have non-linguistic ways of improving executive function; and d) benefits from bilingualism – and all cognitively challenging activities – are inconsistent because individuals vary in the number and kinds of experiences they have that promote superior executive function.
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May 20, 2014