Extending Wednesdays

Bilingualism and Dementia


Welcome to the first of our Extending Wednesdays posts, where each week we’ll feature a different extended essay theme from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. 

While Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal highlights over 130 themes and concepts to help students launch their extended essay investigations through the combination of our comprehensive Extended Essay Guide and 7 Extending Ideas videos, many subscribers have suggested that it would be very helpful to be regularly presented with specific ideas to get the most out of our database.  So that’s what these posts are all about.  

Each post briefly describes a particular extended essay concept suggested by our resources, while explicitly designating all the additional Ideas Roadshow resources on our Portal to assist those interested in giving the topic a closer look. 

Bilingualism and Dementia

Our first Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Extending Ideas in Psychology video where renowned York University psychologist Ellen Bialystok highlights her groundbreaking work on the link between bilingualism and dementia.

In Chapter 6 of the Ideas Roadshow eBook called The Psychology of Bilingualism, Professor Bialystok describes her findings that show that, on average, being bilingual delays the first signs of dementia about four to five years compared to monolinguals.

Professor Bialystok is internationally known for her pioneering work on how bilingualism impacts the brain, a notion that inherently relies on how our brains are shaped by our experiences, a concept known as “neuroplasticity”.

Her many experiments on attention and multitasking have led her to conclude that bilinguals typically have a more developed frontal lobe structure than monolinguals, the part of the brain that is associated with planning and so-called “executive control”.  

But understanding how this fits with dementia is not so clear.

The puzzle is that dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, is initially a memory disorder.  It’s not a disease of executive control. How does an experience that boosts the front part of the brain protect us from a disease that initially strikes the middle part of the brain, since the memory disorders that are the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s come from the hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe?

“The theory, yet to be confirmed, is that because the front part of the brain is typically more developed for bilinguals than monolinguals, it’s better suited to provide compensation for deterioration that arises elsewhere.  This increased ability for executive control comes in as a kind of ‘cognitive reserve’.” 

Possible areas of investigation for an extended essay include an examination of the current state of the theory of “cognitive reserve, a comparative examination of studies linking dementia to bilingualism, an analysis of research methods associated with such studies, suggestions for further investigations that might help distinguish between competing theories and interpretation, various other specific avenues of psychological research linking language with memory, and the use of fMRI and other brain diagnostic tools for psychological research. Given the natural overlap of many of these themes with neuroscience, some may be appropriate for a literature-based EE in biology. 

Primary Ideas Roadshow resources includes the clips Improving Multitasking, Measuring Brain Activity, Metalinguistic Awareness, Reducing the Mess and Taking the Right Path, the compilation videos Extending Ideas in Psychology and The Science of Language, the hour-long video The Psychology of Bilingualism and the eBook, The Psychology of Bilingualism.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet you can now sign up for an individual subscription. Annual individual teacher or student subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources.
School-wide subscriptions are affordably priced based on the number of DP students in your school.

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