Knowing multiple languages can improve recovery from stroke

People who speak more than one language are more likely to recover from a stroke than monolingual patients, research suggests.

Researchers have found that people who speak multiple languages are twice as likely to recover their mental functions after stroke as those who speak one language.

The study, co-authored by Bilingualism Matters Deputy Director Dr. Thomas Bak, gathered data from 608 stroke patients in Hyderabad, India. The patients were assessed on their attention skills and the ability to retrieve and organise information.

The researchers found about 40 per cent of bilingual patients had normal mental function following a stroke, compared with 20 per cent of single language patients.

Other factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and age were all taken into account to ensure that results could not be attributed to having a healthier lifestyle. The fact that there was no difference in the age at which stroke occurred in bilinguals and monolinguals supports the theory that the bilingual patients were not simply “healthier” than their monolingual counterparts.

Previous studies by the same research team at Edinburgh and Hyderabad showed that people who speak more than one language develop dementia several years later than people who speak one language. According to the researchers, the act of switching between two different languages means that the brain is constantly being exercised, leading to an increase in cognitive reserve – the ability to cope with damaging influences such as stroke or dementia.

This is the first time that researchers have studied the influence of bilingualism on the recovery of stroke, the second most important cause of cognitive disability after dementia.

The researchers say that the study results may not be applicable to all bilingual people because switching languages is a daily reality for patients in Hyderabad but this might not be the case in other places. More research is needed to determine the exact circumstances under which bilingualism can have a positive influence on mental functions.

The study, which is funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research, is published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke. The lead author is Professor Suvarna Alladi of Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad.

Read the full article:
Alladi, S., Bak, T. H., Mekala, S., Rajan, A., Chaudhuri, J. R., Mioshi, E., … & Kaul, S. (2015). Impact of Bilingualism on Cognitive Outcome After Stroke. Stroke, STROKEAHA-115.

Read more about Dr Bak’s work on languages and ageing, dementia and stroke in his blog post