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If Alzheimer's disease runs in your family, you may want to start learning a second language. Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto have completed a study which suggests that being able to speak more than one language can help delay the onset of symptoms of the mind-robbing illness.

The team, led by neuroscientist Tom Schweizer, used CT scans to study the brains of bilingual and unilingual individuals suspected of having Alzheimer's. The patients were matched up so they had similar levels of education and cognitive skills involving memory, attention, planning and organization.

And even though they had equivalent cognitive abilities, the scans revealed the bilingual speakers had twice as much atrophy in the regions of the brain affected by Alzheimer's, compared with the unilingual individuals.

The findings, published in the journal Cortex, suggest the disease must be much more advanced in bilingual patients before they start experiencing memory impairment and a decline in other mental skills.

Dr. Schweizer said a second language appears to delay the onset of symptoms by four or five years. "This is fantastic," he said, adding that no existing medicine is that effective.

He speculated that people who can speak two languages develop extra neural networks, or brain pathways, that help compensate for the disease process.

"You are constantly switching between two languages and you are inhibiting one language in favour of the other," he explained.

Dr. Schweizer added that the benefits of bilingualism fit into the notion of cognitive reserves. As the disease begins to ravage the brain, some individuals appear to have additional mental capacity so they don't immediately show signs of decline.

"This is why physicians tell you to keep your brain active when you get older – do crosswords, lots of reading and sudoku. It's the same premise," he said.

"There are many ways to keep your brain active," he added. The team hopes to carry out more studies to determine the best way to stave off Alzheimer's.