How Being Bilingual Could Affect Your Health

Bilingual stroke patients were more likely to have normal brain function than those who spoke one language


Can you say "better brain function after stroke" in Chinese?

Then you might fare better than your monolingual counterparts if you ever have a stroke. A new study found that bilingual patients who had strokes had better cognitive function afterward than patients who spoke only one language.

While lead study author Suvarna Alladi, DM, of Nizam's Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) in India, and colleagues didn't look at the causes behind this finding, they did theorize that this beneficial effect may not be limited only to languages.

Senior investigator Subhash Kaul, DM, also of NIMS, explained in a press release that "Our study suggests that intellectually stimulating activities pursued over time, from a young age or even starting in mid-life, can protect you from the damage brought on by a stroke."

For their study, Dr. Alladi and team looked at 608 patients who had had strokes. Around half of these patients spoke at least two languages. After having a stroke, bilingual patients were about twice as likely to have normal brain function — 40 percent of bilingual stroke patients had normal brain function, compared to roughly 20 percent of monolingual stroke patients.

Dr. Alladi and team measured post-stroke brain function by looking at the patients' results on tests that measured attention span and the ability to find and organize information.

Although it seems that knowing two languages would mean having a stronger command of words, Dr. Alladi and team also found that bilingual stroke patients were just as likely as monolingual stroke patients to have trouble reading, writing and speaking after stroke — a disorder called aphasia.

A stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is partially or completely blocked, usually caused by an obstruction in the blood vessels, such as plaque. Brain cells start to die when they do not receive blood. This can lead to cognitive problems in stroke survivors.

This study was published Nov. 19 in the journal Stroke. The Indian Council of Medical Research funded this study. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.