Bilingual patients have better cognitive function after stroke

por Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter | November 24, 2015
Alzheimers/Neurology Stroke
Clot in the brain
Courtesy of the American
Heart Association
Patients who speak two or more languages were twice as likely to recover mental functions after a stroke than those who speak one language, according to a new study published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

“Bilingualism makes people switch from one language to another, so while they inhibit one language, they have to activate another to communicate,” Thomas Bak, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “This switching offers practically constant brain training which may be a factor in helping stroke patients recover.”

The researchers collected data from 608 stroke patients in Hyderabad, India, on their attention skills and ability to retrieve and organize information. They chose Hyderabad because it’s a multicultural city where many different languages are spoken.

They found that about 40 percent of the bilingual patients and 20 percent of patients who spoke one language had normal mental function after a stroke. Factors including smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and age were considered to ensure that the results were not due to healthier lifestyles.

According to the American Heart Association’s 2015 Statistical Update, someone in the U.S. has a stroke every 40 seconds on average. It’s a leading cause of death in the U.S., killing 130,000 Americans per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s commonly thought that Alzheimer’s is the only cause of dementia, but stroke is also an important cause, Dr. Subhash Kaul, senior investigator and developer of the stroke registry at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, said in a statement. Previous research has shown that bilingualism might delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers caution that the results of this study might not apply to all bilingual people because there may be different results in areas where the need to use two or more languages is not as widespread.

They also mentioned that people who speak one language should not necessarily begin learning another one. What the study suggests is that intellectually stimulating activities pursued over time from a young age, or even in middle age, can protect someone from the damage that a stroke can cause.

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