Here’s a new take on Alzheimer’s prevention: bilingualism. That’s right — researchers at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto have found that those who have spoken two or more languages consistently over many years experienced a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by as much as five years.
The research team at the Rotman conducted a study that examined the clinical records of more than 200 patients diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease. Observations were made on these patients at a clinic from 2007 to 2009.
The patients’ date of diagnosis and age of onset of cognitive impairment were recorded. Along with this crucial piece of information, the researchers also recorded occupational history, education, and language history. In particular, the researchers were interested in whether the participants had fluency in English and any other languages. Following this data collection, 102 patients were classified as bilingual (speaking two languages) and 109 as monolingual (speaking one language).
The researchers found some interesting results after analyzing the accumulated statistics. They found that bilingual patients had been diagnosed 4.3 years later — and had reported the onset of symptoms 5.1 years later — than the monolingual patients. The groups came up the same on measures of cognitive and occupational level. The research team noted that there was no effect of immigration status, and the monolingual patients had received more formal education. There were no gender differences either.
The researchers caution that they aren’t claiming that bilingualism in any way prevents Alzheimer’s or other dementias. But what it might do is contribute to a kind of cognitive reserve in the brain that appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms for a number of years.
And it’s not that the brains of people who speak two languages don’t show any deterioration when it comes to Alzheimer’s. They still experience some progression of the disease, but for the bilingual patients, their special ability with two languages seems to equip them with skills that keep the telltale symptoms of Alzheimer’s in check. These symptoms include memory loss, confusion, and difficulties with problem-solving and planning.
The current study on speaking more than one language adds to mounting scientific evidence that lifestyle factors — such as regular cardiovascular exercise and a healthy diet — can play a big role in how the brain copes with age-related cognitive decline.
Even though those in the medical community are working hard on the development of new and more effective medications for Alzheimer’s disease, there are currently no drug treatments that show any effects on delaying Alzheimer’s symptoms, let alone delaying the onset of these symptoms by up to five years. Seen in this light, the results of this study are actually quite astonishing. For those of you who have always wanted to learn a second language, here’s a great reason to try to attain that goal.