Posts Tagged ‘Ramin Skibba’

Speaking Two Languages May Help the Aging Brain

December 13, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Ramin Skibba in the Health and Science Section of the 11Dec 2018 issue of the Washington Post. The article notes that the first main advantage involves what is referred to as executive function. This includes skills that allow us to control, direct and manage our attention, as well as our ability to plan. It also helps us to ignore irrelevant information and focus on what’s important. Having two languages and the languages being activated automatically and subconsciously, the bilingual person is constantly managing the interference of the languages so that the wrong word in the wrong language at the wrong time isn’t said. These same brain areas are also used when trying to complete a task while there are distractions. This task might have nothing to do with language; it could be trying to listen to something in a noisy environment or doing some visual task. The muscle memory developed from using two languages can apply to different skills.

Executive functions are the most complex brain functions that separate us from apes and other animals. They’re often observed in parts of the brain that are the newest in evolutionary terms: the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for advanced processing; the bilateral supra marginal gyro, which plays a role in linking words and meanings; and the anterior cingulate. Studies show that the bilingual experience alters the structure of these areas.

There are increases in gray matter volume. Gray matter refers to how many cell bodies and dendrites there are. Bilingual experience makes gray matter denser, so there are more cells. This is an indication of a healthier brain. Bilingualism also affects white matter, a fatty substance that covers axons, which are the main projections coming out from neurons to connect them to other neurons. White matter allows messages to travel fast and efficiently across networks of nerves and to the brain. Bilingualism promotes the integrity of white matter as we age. It gives us more neurons to use, and it strengthens or maintains the connections between them so that communication can happen optimally.

When the brains of bilingual individuals who have suffered neurodegeneration are examined, their brains look damaged. From their brain scans one might think these people should be more forgetful, or they should’t be coping as well as they are. But this is not the case. A bilingual brain can compensate for brain deterioration by using alternative brain networks and connections when original pathways have been destroyed. Researchers call this theory “cognitive compensation” and conclude that it occurs because bilingualism promotes the health of both gray and white matter.

A continuing theme of the healthy memory blog is that memory health is dependent on staying cognitively active. We need to be continually learning throughout our lifetimes. This provides not only for memory health, but also for a more fulfilling life. As was described in the preceding paragraph, the brain can compensate for brain deterioration by using alternative brain networks and connections when original pathways have been destroyed. As has been described in many previous healthy memory blog posts that autopsies have been done of people whose brains were full of the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, which are the defining features for a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, but who never had any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of the disease.