To Delay Dementia Parlez Vous Two Languages


Another study is showing that being bilingual helps stave off dementia. This study, conducted in India, confirmed and built on earlier research. Mental activity, which is involved in language skills like crossword puzzles, reading a lot and speaking multiple languages, helps keep the brain sharp. So, parlez vous two languages as a means to avoid or delay any onset of dementia.

The latest study shows that dementia develops years later in bilingual people than in those who speak just one language. Published in Neurology, the new research is the largest study to reach this conclusion. It also added a new finding that the bilingual benefits are also seen in illiterate people, which shows that the linguistic machinations that help keep the brain active are not explained by formal education.

The researchers theorized that there is something special that goes on in the brain when switching from one language to another in the course of routine communication — something that helps explain why bilingual people develop dementia approximately five years later than other people do. The researchers also found that illiterate people who could speak more than one language developed dementia six years later than other illiterate people.

“Mental activity has a certain protective effect,” noted co-author Thomas Bak, a neurologist at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. Bak pointed out that bilingualism combines multiple mental activities, such as switching sounds, concepts, grammatical structures and such, that stimulate your brain.

For this study, Bak and his research colleagues in India reviewed the medical records of 648 people who were seen in a Hyderabad clinic and suffered from dementia. Residents in Hyderabad, like many people in India, generally speak two or three languages. Typically, they use Telugu or Dakkhini, the local Urdu dialect, at home and then English in schools and workplaces.

Bilingualism is largely the norm in India, according to co-author Suvarna Alladi, a Hyderabad neurologist at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences. As a result, “bilingualism is not a characteristic of any particular socioeconomic, geographic or religious group.” Alladi said.

Over 50 percent of the people seen at the clinic who had dementia spoke more than one language. The research team determined that those people had developed their first dementia symptoms, such as confusion and memory loss, on average at 65.6, which was five years later than the average age of 61.1 for people who only spoke one language.

Bak was involved in an earlier University of Edinburgh study on the effects of a second language. That one determined that it did not matter if the second language was acquired early in life or later. It still helped stave off dementia.

In that study, researchers found that reading, verbal fluency and intelligence were better for bilingual people. That study did not ascertain whether learning a second language improved cognitive functions or whether individuals who have better cognitive abilities are more likely to become bilingual. However, the newer Indian study Bak was involved in implies that cognitive ability is not relevant, particularly in areas where everyone is bilingual.

Published in Annals of Neurology, the University of Edinburgh study involved 262 people who were tested at age 11 and again in their 70s. All of the seniors are bilingual. Of them, 195 learned the second language before turning 18, and 65 learned it as adults.

The findings showed that the bilingual seniors had significantly better cognitive abilities as seniors than would have been expected from their baseline test. The effects were present regardless of when they learned the second language. Dr. Bak noted, “Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

An earlier Canadian study also determined that bilingualism delays dementia, although their results showed a four-year delay. That study, published in Neurosychologia, looked at 184 elderly patients, of whom 134 showed signs of dementia. The ones who spoke more than one language, on average, started showing signs of dementia later than the monolingual group (age 75.5 versus age 71.4).

These studies conducted in different countries with different populations, clearly show that acquiring a second language at any age can improve cognitive abilities. One thing that was not clear, however, in the Canadian or Scottish research, was whether or not the seniors still use the second language regularly. In India, switching back and forth between languages is part of daily life for many. All three research efforts clearly send a message to Americans, many of whom do not speak multiple languages, that it would be a good idea to start. Clearly a way to delay dementia is if  vous parlez two languages.

By Dyanne Weiss

USA Today
Everyday Health