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The benefits of speaking several languages are obvious in better communication abilities. Surprising new research findings suggest that bilingualism also enhances our mental abilities in general and reduces the risk of developing dementia at older age.

Languages shape us in many ways and forms. The way we talk, write, relate to others and even our cultural profile are, to a variable extent, defined by the language we speak. Learning a new language is very common among young adults. Acquiring a foreign language can be motivated by school programs, personal interests or circumstances alone. Being multilingual brings obvious benefits in terms of better communication and career perspective. What is not really obvious for most of people is that learning languages can be good for health as well, at least for mental health.

The brain is the central organ of language. It is responsible for processing the sounds, give them a meaning and formulate an adequate response to those same sounds. Learning a new language is a type of workout for the brain, as it makes it jump between languages so much so that it can actually physically change it. And these physical changes, which include a denser gray matter, can turn out to be very beneficial to our health, particularly at older age.

Bilingualism delays the onset of mental decline in Alzheimer's disease patients

For instances, bilingualism can be a method of preserving cognition, thus delaying the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Canadian scientist Fergus Craik and colleagues collected the data from 211 patients with a probable diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, approximately half of whom were bilingual and the other half spoke just one language.

Combining information from the language fluency with the age at onset of cognitive impairment, the researchers observed that bilingual patients had been definitely diagnosed with the Alzheimer's disease 4.3 years later on average and had started to experience symptoms of cognitive decline 5.1 years later than monolingual individuals.

Other factors such as education, occupational history, gender and immigration status that also can influence the rate of the onset of cognitive decline were taken into account to assure that the observed effect is not connected to one of them.

Such a statistically significant difference does, in fact, suggest that lifelong bilingualism can serve as some sort of protection for the onset of Alzheimer's disease. However, it is important to note that there does not seem to be any additional benefits to people who know three or more languages compared to those who are just bilingual. It seems that the language-switching exercise itself, rather than the volume of linguistic information or general knowledge recorded by the brain, plays a key role in the observed phenomenon. The benefits of bilingualism in terms of delayed onset of dementia are observed even in bilingual people who are illiterate and have practically no education.

Several months ago, a study similar to Craik's research was published. A group of investigators looked at the case records of 648 patients with dementia and concluded that bilingual patients presented with signs and symptoms of dementia approximately 4.5 years later than monolingual patients. It was precisely in the group of patients with Alzheimer's disease that the difference in age at onset is more striking, therefore corroborating the findings of Craik's team.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • CRAIK, F. I. M., BIALYSTOK, E. & FREEDMAN, M. 2010. Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease - Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 75, 1726-1729
  • ALLADI, S., BAK, T. H., DUGGIRALA, V., SURAMPUDI, B., SHAILAJA, M., SHUKLA, A. K., CHAUDHUR, J. R. & KAUL, S. 2013. Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status. Neurology. Early Online Publication
  • KRIZMANA, J., MARIANB, V., SHOOKB, A., SKOEA, E. & KRAUS, N. 2012. Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109, 7877–7881
  • MORALESA, J., CALVOB, A. & BIALYSTOK, E. 2013. Working memory development in monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114, 187-202
  • GOLD, B. T., KIM, C., JOHNSON, N. F., KRYSCIO, R. J. & SMITH, C. D. 2013. Lifelong Bilingualism Maintains Neural Efficiency for Cognitive Control in Aging. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 387-396
  • BIALYSTOK, E. & CRAIK, F. I. M. 2010. Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 19-23
  • FRANCIS, W. S. 1999. Analogical Transfer of Problem Solutions within and between Languages in Spanish–English Bilinguals Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 301–329.
  • Photo courtesy of The LEAF Project by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/76708317@N02/6966621754/
  • Photo courtesy of Daniel Sancho by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/teclasorg/5679910760/

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