Yes, you read that right. No, it is not a type of pasta. Or maybe it should be? It could be classed as the latest new 'brain food'.
Let me set the scene.
My A level (the British equivalent of AP) Biology teacher would always sit in class doing some form of, what he coined, ‘healthy brain activity’ while waiting for us to complete exam papers or classroom tasks, whether that was endlessly fiddling with a Rubik’s cube trying to solve it, or trying to beat his crossword time (I never asked what it was because I was not the most sociable student, but I am assuming it’s quite impressive seeing as he never managed to beat his fastest time.)
He spent a few minutes one morning talking about these various studies into brain health and preventing cognitive decline, but as a 16 year old, that was the last thing I wanted to hear at 9am on a particularly cold and frosty Monday.
Except now, several years later, 2 theses on the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s and its risk factors and research into developing in-vitro models for the study of neurodegenerative diseases, I came across the same studies that he verbally referenced that frosty Monday morning.
And the results were incredibly interesting to say the least.
For all that the scientific community knows about diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there is just as much, if not more, that we don’t know. And the resulting hypotheses are eye-opening. Biological sex, education level, diet and physical exercise (just to name a few) were all named as potential factors that could alter the risk associated with developing Alzheimer’s. The multifactorial nature of these diseases often makes it much harder to pinpoint effective treatments, preventative measures, and even diagnosis, which is why there has been a push in recent years for more and more research.
One of the perhaps more interesting studies I found during my undergraduate degree researched the potential links between the clinical expression of Alzheimer’s and multilingualism. And as someone who’s backup plan in life was to be a linguist or a translator, at best this seemed like a really nice rabbit hole to dive into for a few hours. And at worst, at least I was learning something to add to my ever-growing thesis while incessantly evaluating meta-reviews and research methods.
Which all leads nicely onto why learning a second, third, fourth or even fifth language may be useful for everyone. A study conducted in 2012 concluded that ‘if the brain is an engine, bilingualism may help to improve its mileage, allowing it to go farther on the same amount of fuel.’ Furthermore, a more recent study earlier this year found that despite the limitations surrounding many of the studies, ‘most publications support the presence of increased frontal-executive reserve that compensates for the development of AD neuropathology and, thereby, delays the emergence of clinical symptoms of dementia by about 4-5 years.’
To explain the above, the idea of cognitive reserve first seemed to emerge in the late 1980s, when researchers observed people who had no visible signs of dementia but were discovered to have brain abnormalities compatible with advanced Alzheimer's disease at autopsy.*
These people did not exhibit disease symptoms while they were alive because they possessed a large enough cognitive reserve to compensate for the damage and continue to operate normally, which may suggest that higher levels of education (including the study of a second language) may contribute to a slowing of cognitive decline.
Alzheimer's is currently treated with drugs that manage the symptoms. Studies into such diseases and conditions are often difficult, as many drugs fail in late stage clinical trials, but despite progress being slow, the US has actually recently approved an immunotherapy that looks to actually treat the disease, and not just the symptoms.
But prevention is better than cure, and if learning a language can help to prevent Alzheimer's in any way, sign me up for every language course in existence.
This is the first post in what I hope to turn into a mini-series as a budding scientist’s foray into language and linguistics, covering fields ranging from sociology and politics, to economics and physics, and covering topics such as the history of multilingualism, the Internet’s fascination with polyglots, and what actually constitutes a language.
In addition to this, I would also like to teach you as many ways to say ‘why’ in as many different languages over the coming weeks, because I believe the best adventures always start with a sentence beginning with why, or even why not. I’ll start with the Dutch for why.
It’s read phonetically, but the W sound is a bit tricky to get right (my closest guess would be in between the English V and W sound).
Fun fact, the saying 'prevention is better than cure' is often attributed to Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus!
Please leave any comments with anything you’ve been curious about in regards to language, whether that be language related or not, or even leave any suggestions for future topics. And be sure to share this with anyone who might find this interesting!
*It is important to note that while medicine has progressed to allow for accurate diagnostics for a myriad of conditions and diseases, Alzheimer’s is very often only officially confirmed upon autopsy after death. The pathophysiological hallmarks, namely tau neurofibrillary tangles and beta-amyloid plaques, have been utilised to develop tests, including blood tests and lumbar punctures to test cerebrospinal fluid. However, these tests are still limited in use, and further research needs to be done, especially in regards to diagnostics in the early stages.
Interesting links for further listening, watching or reading -