In a 2010 study, CT scans showed that bilingual people had to sustain twice as much brain damage before triggering signs of Alzheimer’s compared to those who spoke only one language-suggesting that bilingualism afforded patients the ability to function beyond the expected impairment. “Bilingualism exercises more networks; it branches out, recruiting other brain areas,” explains Tom Schweizer, a neuroscientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto who helped lead the study. “So if you’re hit with a devastating disease like Alzheimer’s, your brain compensates. It reassigns what’s broken-like memory function-to another area.”
A skill you practise provides greater benefits to executive function than a hobby, and recent evidence suggests bilingualism can stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s by about five years. “That’s better than any available pharmaceutical option,” says Schweizer.
If learning a second language keeps our executive function in fighting trim, Sylvain Moreno’s research reminds us that chords and scales are a language, too. A car crash at 16, and his total recovery from the resulting memory loss, left him curious about the brain’s power to relearn. Today a scientist with the Rotman Research Institute, Moreno has devoted the last decade to finding a link between music and executive function.
Having already used music to locate the “learning switch”-he was able to produce, in 20 days, up to a 14-point bump in IQ in Toronto preschoolers exposed to a computerized music program-Moreno wondered if the switch could be flipped for older adults.
He knew that seniors who had been professional musicians showed more rapid mental processing than those who never unpacked an instrument. But could he replicate the same effect without requiring seniors, often saddled with motor skill problems, to spend years studying the piano or guitar? Since music stimulates the same frontal-lobe network that processed words and syntax do, Moreno had a hunch executive function could be bolstered through singing. “Your voice is itself a musical instrument,” he says. “In playing it, you have to focus your attention, isolate the information that matters and act decisively.”
In the first study of its kind, his team is now working with retirement homes around Toronto, organizing residents into mixed choirs of 20 and training them for three months, measuring cognitive scores from their performances before and after the training. The research is ongoing, but Moreno confirms residents reap “significant” benefits to executive function. Along with better word recall, there were gains in attention span and self-control. Best of all, benefits last for up to a year after the sessions stop. “A lot of researchers still believe seniors have low brain plasticity, that you can’t teach these skills,” he says. “We’ve found the reverse.”
It’s the adrenalin rush and the joy of four-part harmony that led tenor Donald Blake, a 70-year-old retired political science professor, to join a Vancouver seniors’ choir called EnChor nearly six years ago. Aside from public concerts, EnChor visits assisted-living facilities, often performing for individuals who appear to have no awareness of what’s going on around them. “But when we sing,” Blake says, “sometimes you’ll see a finger moving or a foot tapping. Sometimes they even join in.”
“Friends used to say, ‘You must really have nothing to do in your work if you’re studying stress in old people,'” recalls Sonia Lupien, founder and director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at the Montreal Mental Health University Institute. “What are the elderly stressed about?” But up to 20 per cent of Canadian seniors will suffer depressive symptoms serious enough to warrant treatment. And all that stress, Lupien warns, has a devastating effect on executive function.