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Second language linked to better brain function after stroke

Reuters | Article Link | by Kathryn Doyle

Image courtesy of MorgueFile

People who speak two languages are twice as likely as those who only speak one to regain normal cognitive function after a stroke, according to a new study.

In recent years it has become clear that life experiences modify the way disease expresses itself in the brain, said lead author Dr. Suvarna Alladi, a neurology professor at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India.

“One study in Toronto demonstrated that people who could speak two languages had later onset dementia,” Alladi told Reuters Health.

Using multiple languages challenges the brain, as it can be harder to find a particular word switching between languages, and this challenge promotes neuroplasticity or “cognitive reserve,” which prepares the brain to deal with new challenges, like disease, she said.

Researchers reviewed the medical records of 608 patients in the stroke registry at Alladi’s institution between 2006 and 2013. In Hyderabad, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi and English are all common languages and children learn three languages in school, Alladi said.

More than half of the stroke patients spoke at least two languages.

After accounting for other lifestyle factors like smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, age and education, the researchers found that about 40 percent of those who were bilingual had normal cognitive function after a stroke, compared to 20 percent of those who spoke only one language.

Bilingual people also performed better on tests of attention after a stroke, but there was no difference in the likelihood of experiencing aphasia, or loss of ability to understand or express speech, according to the results in Stroke.