Chances are, people who speak two different languages already have a greater advantage in life because of their additional communication skills and potential job market advantages. However, for those prone to developing dementia, bilingualism may also slow the onset of the disease, especially early onset. According to the medical journal, Annals of Neurology, speaking two languages has a beneficial impact on cognitive decline with age. Those who are fluent or semi-fluent in two languages have a lesser risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease as age increases. The study controls for intelligence at an early age, which emphasizes the fact that learning a second language has an impact on cognitive abilities later in life. Childhood intelligence is extremely relevant to this study, because it rules out early cognitive functions as an initial factor in becoming bilingual.
In Dr. Thomas Bak’s study, researchers at the University of Edinbburgh took data from the Lothian Birth Cohort, which included data from 836 individuals with birth dates in 1936. The test subjects, now 78 years old, underwent intelligence testing when they were 11 years old, and were then tested again before age 75. At the time of the retest, 236 of those individuals were bilingual, and over 50 percent of those that were bilingual beyond age 70 learned to speak two languages prior to their 18th birthday. Out of all the people tested, those that spoke two and three languages scored significantly higher on cognitive tasks than monolingual test subjects with a greater advantage in reading and comprehensive intelligence. This study appears to prove that the onset of dementia and general cognitive decline can be slowed by practicing and maintaining the use of two languages.
The results of the study are particularly relevant because many people that are bilingual acquire a second language at a later point in their adulthood. According to this study, even those who learned to be bilingual at an older age still had a cognitive advantage over those who never learned a second or third language, and they were less likely to develop dementia. Bilingual ability engages the brain’s executive function center which sustains behaviors like multitasking, abstract thought and attention span. Switching back and forth between two languages also contributes to brain flexibility. The old saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it” is probably more relevant than once originally thought, and the concept of “use” could greatly contribute to slowing the onset of dementia, especially earlier in adult life.
It is likely that any form of cognitive stimulation could serve to slow the onset of dementia, but there is strong evidence that bilingualism is an extremely effective way of doing so. Since the study controlled for childhood intelligence, these patterns could not be explained by intelligence factors early in life. Another study on the development of this neurological disease conducted by George Mason University in Virginia showed that listening to familiar music brought back some cognitive function in patients who where already suffering from the disease. Exercising the brain on any level appears to be beneficial to cognitive function at any age, and important for slowing the development of dementia. Learning apps on smartphones have taken note of this, which is why popular programs like Luminosity and CogniFit are currently available globally. These programs could improve brain function in young people, as well as those already suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
By Sarah Gallagher