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Bilingualism and Dementia: How a Second Language Protects Against Cognitive Aging

Bilingualism and Dementia: How a Second Language Protects Against Cognitive Aging

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People who are fluent in two or more languages are less susceptible to age-related mental disorders. They more quickly process information and make decisions, have better memories, and can even better identify emotions. Scientists from various countries discussed the influence of a second language on the processes of cognitive aging at the international symposium ‘Bilingualism: Proper Learning, Effective Communication, and Pleasant Old Age’ hosted by HSE University.

The symposium was organised by the Cognitive Control, Communication, and Perception Group and was held at the Centre for Cognition and Decision Making (CCDM) of the HSE University Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience. One of the initiators of the event was Dr Federico Gallo, research fellow at the university and early-career researcher in the field of bilingualism, cognitive reserve, and ageing.

Federico Gallo

Studies show that there is a noticeable difference in the neural substrates of bilingual people and monolingual people, explained Federico Gallo in his lecture ‘Eternal Youth: How Bilingualism Alleviates Cognitive Ageing.’ This difference allows bilingual people not only to solve problems more effectively, but also to maintain their levels of attention, quick task switching, and other cognitive functions.

Jubin Abutalebi

Professor Jubin Abutalebi of the Centre for Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics at University Vita Salute San Raffaele (Milan, Italy) presented a report at the symposium. He spoke about the neuroanatomy of bilingualism, including the leading brain structures that accompany word processing in an acquired language. The professor devoted special attention to the cognitive advantages enjoyed by bilingual people. Studies show that speaking two languages makes a significant contribution to preventing age-related dementia. Jubin Abutalebi had previously explored the same topic in detail in his report ‘Preventing Dementia Through Bilingualism,’ which he presented at the XXIV Yasin (April) International Academic Conference. ‘In people who speak several languages, the symptoms of dementia appear four to five years later than in people who speak only one language,’ highlighted the professor. This occurs because the speed and nature of the deterioration of a person’s cognitive functions depends on the volume of their so-called ‘cognitive reserve’—the brain’s ability to resist neurocognitive changes that occur as a result of ageing. The continuous need to control simultaneous access to two or more languages increases the brain’s cognitive reserve and, accordingly, delays the onset of cognitive impairments in older age.

Bilingual people perform better at identifying such subtleties of speech as emotional tone, noted Doctor Beatriz Bermúdez-Margaretto (University of Salamanca, Spain) in her talk ‘Syntactic and Emotional Interaction in Understanding a Second Language.’ Research supports this conclusion.

The symposium also featured reports by HSE University students of various levels. Master’s student Lilia Terekhina spoke about the advantage possessed by bilingual people in terms of solving cognitive tasks in cases of sleep disorders. Fellow master’s student Maria Nelyubina presented a paper on the results of research showing that knowing two related languages is more advantageous for solving cognitive tasks than knowing two unrelated languages. Doctoral student Anastasia Malyshevskaya presented her own research demonstrating that the better a person speaks a second language, the more their attention system activates when processing abstract words.

Andrey Myachikov

The closing remarks were delivered by Professor Andrey Myachikov (HSE University, Northumbria University, UK), head of the Cognitive Control, Communication, and Perception Group. He remarked on the sophistication of the event, the irrefutable quality of the research presented, and its value to international science.

In turn, Professor Jubin Abutalebi remarked that HSE University has the potential to be globally competitive in terms of research into bilingualism and cognitive reserve. He also affirmed his interest in cooperating with the university on future projects.

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