Does bilingualism contribute to cognitive reserve? Cognitive and neural perspectives

Neuropsychology. 2015 Jan;29(1):139-50. doi: 10.1037/neu0000105. Epub 2014 Jun 16.


Objective: Cognitive reserve refers to how individuals actively utilize neural resources to cope with neuropathology to maintain cognitive functioning. The present review aims to critically examine the literature addressing the relationship between bilingualism and cognitive reserve to elucidate whether bilingualism delays the onset of cognitive and behavioral manifestations of dementia. Potential neural mechanisms behind this relationship are discussed.

Method: PubMed and PsycINFO databases were searched (through January 2014) for original research articles in English or Spanish languages. The following search strings were used as keywords for study retrieval: "bilingual AND reserve," "reserve AND neural mechanisms," and "reserve AND multilingualism."

Results: Growing scientific evidence suggests that lifelong bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve and delays the onset of Alzheimer's disease symptoms, allowing bilingual individuals affected by Alzheimer's disease to live an independent and richer life for a longer time than their monolingual counterparts. Lifelong bilingualism is related to more efficient use of brain resources that help individuals maintain cognitive functioning in the presence of neuropathology. We propose multiple putative neural mechanisms through which lifelong bilinguals cope with neuropathology. The roles of immigration status, education, age of onset, proficiency, and frequency of language use on the relationship between cognitive reserve and bilingualism are considered.

Conclusions: Implications of these results for preventive practices and future research are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age of Onset
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Alzheimer Disease / prevention & control*
  • Alzheimer Disease / psychology*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Reserve*
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Dementia / prevention & control
  • Dementia / psychology
  • Educational Status
  • Emigrants and Immigrants* / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Multilingualism*
  • Neuropsychological Tests