Speaking More Than One Language Eases Stroke Recovery

Speaking More Than One Language Eases Stroke Recovery

 

There are ways to reduce your risk of having a stroke — for example, you can exercise more and not smoke. But should a stroke occur, you might also be able to reduce your risk of losing brain function if you are a speaker of more than one language.

In a new study, bilingual stroke patients were twice as likely as those who spoke one language to have normal cognitive functions after a stroke, according to findings reported today (Nov. 19) in the journal Stroke.

The reason for the difference appears to be a feature of the brain called “cognitive reserve,” in which a brain that has built a rich network of neural connections — highways that can can still carry the busy traffic of thoughts even if a few bridges are destroyed.

“People with more mental activities have more interconnected brains, which are able to deal better with potential damage,” said Dr. Thomas Bak, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a co-author of the study. “Language is just one of many ways of boosting the cognitive reserve,” he added. [10 Things You Didn’t Know About You]

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is cut off, starving brain cells of oxygen. The major risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and smoking.

Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, affecting about 800,000 Americans annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 20 percent of stroke victims may die, and many more are left with disabilities such as paralyzed limbs, speech problems, dementia, depression or other mental health concerns, depending on which regions of the brain are damaged.

In the new study, researchers led by Dr. Suvarna Alladi, a professor of neurology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, examined stroke patients in Hyderabad, a large city in southern India where people commonly speak two or more languages, independent of their education level or social status. The researchers followed 608 patients for up to two years after a stroke, comparing the 353 bilingual patients with the 255 monolingual patients.

The researchers found that more than 40 percent of the bilingual patients had normal cognitive functions following a stroke, compared with less than 20 percent of single-language patients.

The bilingual patients also performed better on poststroke tests that measured their abilities to pay attention to retrieve and organize information. They were less likely to develop dementia or a related condition called mild cognitive impairment.

“The advantage of bilingualism is that it makes people switch from one language to another, so while they inhibit one language, they have to activate another to communicate,” said Allad