Bilingualism and the Brain

I have written and spoken many times about the concept of “brain reserve” which refers to the development of cellular connections that provide a type of synaptic density (like a jungle of connections in the brain) throughout the cortex. It is thought that brain reserve is a reflection of a healthy brain and further helps to delay onset of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

A new study indicates bilingualism is another avenue to building brain reserve and a potential delaying agent against dementia. Interestingly, language development has been a consistent and robust correlation of brain health and a protective factor.  The development of a second language early in life has typically been the focus of study, however the development of a second language, even some parts of the language, appears to be beneficial from a health perspective.

The research from Toronto, Canada found that of the 450 Alzheimer’s patients studied (all with same level of impairment), those who were bilingual were diagnosed with the disease four to five years later than those who spoke but one language. The study results were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientists believe the learning of a new language helps to develop the executive system in the frontal lobe that might help to provide a buffer against the ravages of dementia.

Within a brain health lifestyle (see, mental stimulation and exposure to the novel and complex are essential. This one pillar of my brain health lifestyle helps to build reserve. Language development, including a second language fits with this approach. The study also comes on the heels of another stud that found a correlation between deafness or reduced auditory input and risk of dementia. The possible factor in that relationship is the increased risk of isolation for the person and the brain if incoming information is not processed. Isolation has been established as a consistent factor with risk of dementia.

Language and language development is a critical behavior for brain health. Consider learning some parts of a new language including sign language as part of your proactive brain health lifestyle.

Fear of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)

A recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive that polled 2,100 adults found Alzheimer’s Disease to be the most feared disabling disease with 61% responding as such. 48% rated cancer the most feared while 32% said stroke, 18% heart disease and 8% diabetes. This is a finding that is consistent with other surveys of baby boomers who rate memory loss as a top concern.

We do not have a cure or even a prevention for AD, but research suggests lifestyle choices can help to promote brain health and perhaps delay onset of such neurodegenerative diseases. A proactive brain health lifestyle ® is suggested from the earliest of ages (see You can learn and apply behavioral change to areas of socialization, nutrition, physical activity, mental stimulation, and spirituality as part of your overall brain health lifestyle ®.

Giving Hot Yoga a Try

Dr. Nussbaum’s brain health lifestyle ® combines physical activity, mental stimulation, socialization, spirituality, and nutrition into an integrated and comprehensive approach to maximizing the health and potential of your brain. While no single slice of the five part brain health pie is more important than the other, all should be considered and implemented into your daily life.

Recently, I started hot yoga as I included it as a recommendation to my pain patients and thought I needed to understand this activity better. After four or five sessions of hot yoga I believe it to be a healthy and cleansing type activity that includes aerobics and stretching with a focus on breathing. To this end, hot yoga encompasses at least three of the five major brain health lifestyle ® components: physical activity, spirituality, and socialization.

Personally I feel very good mentally and physically after hot yoga. I will likely make this a regular part of my lifestyle and pursuit of emotional and physical health. The activity is also a good one to try with your partner.

Give it a shot and see how you feel.

On Tragedy and Healthy Coping

The United States and all loving people around the globe watched in horror as the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona unfolded on our television screens. This irrational act of violence resulted in such loss of life and trauma that most of us are left trying to understand. Such behavior cannot be boiled down to a simple explanation. Rather, this act typically is the outcome of many factors that may have originated many years ago.

Such acts of violence and impulsive hostility cause shock and psychological harm that can last long after the actual act. It is important to take time to process what has unfolded, to reach out and help those in need, and to unite with love and prayer. Such approaches to coping after a tragedy are healthy and help the healing process.

There are also so many heroic acts that were displayed in Tucson. The older woman who acted to prevent the killer from acting again, the 20 year-old student of the University of Arizona who helped to save the Congresswoman’s life at the scene, the police and medics who rushed to help those in need, and the medical staff at the University of Arizona Medical Center who continue to display such skill and compassion in their treatment of the victims.

I lived nearly ten years in Tucson, earned my graduate degree at the University of Arizona, and trained at the university hospital. I am very proud of the community, the loving people of Tucson, the University and their medical staff. It is true that we are dealing with an act of horror. However, it is also true that we witnessed acts of courage, skill, and compassion that remind us of our best qualities.

As a psychologist, I encourage everyone to move forward with hopes and prayers for those most directly affected by this tragedy. Consider reaching out to those who may be in need at this time and explain the situation to the young in your life who may be afraid. We should not use this as a means to advance any agenda and we should not affix blame to anyone or anything that is not related. This is not a political issue; it is a human issue of horrific consequence.

Moving forward we should try to refrain from personal attack and from personalizing messages that might contrast with our own ideas. We need leaders across the planet who can communicate messages that unite and not divide. The same is true for the media. We should not call others names simply because they disagree with us. We can remain passionate about our beliefs and maintain civility with others who have opposing ideas.

We need a more mature discourse in the United States and across the world, one that unites rather than divides. We are all human with more commonality than difference. Political leaders, media, and those with the ability to connect with millions of people need to lead by example. The rest of us need to work on a daily basis to be more patient and tolerant, to forgive, and to reach out to those who may disagree with our views the most.

Life is too valuable and we are too smart to not try.

God bless the victims of this tragedy and congratulations to the great people of Tucson for their acts of courage and compassion.

Dr. Nussbaum

New Years and the Resolution Thing

It is tradition for everyone to make a New Year’s Resolution, to change a behavior that will improve our lives. Such resolutions provide a sense of new beginning and a type of second chance. They are also most often short lived as behavior is very difficult to change. Try sleeping on a different side of the bed for one week and you will understand how hard it is to change behavior!!

A quick piece of advice regarding resolutions is to make it simple, small, and most important personal. Diets and resolutions that involve food, alcohol, or nicotine tend not to be very personal. Think of things that are more life shaping and perhaps involve relationships or how you approach others. Keep the idea small as one baby step change a year can add up to a new and better you.

The resolution needs to be something personal, practical, and capable of being consistently completed or changed. Keeping things small and in baby step progression will help you to be successful.

Happy New Year!