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A Secret Weapon in Dementia Prevention: The Bilingual Advantage

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerNovember 11, 2013

Have you ever wished you spoke a second language? A new study may give you more motivation to expand your language skills. The largest study on the topic has concluded that speaking a second language may delay the onset of three different types of dementia. The study is the first to report that speaking two languages can delay the onset of dementia, regardless of education level.

The study was published on November 6 in Neurology and was done by researchers at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India. 648 seniors with varying forms of dementia and literacy were evaluated and led researchers to conclude that those participants who spoke a second language were able to delay Alzheimer’s Disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia by 4.5 years.

How Was the Study Completed?

  • 648 people were evaluated with an average age of 66 years old.
  • 14% of participants were illiterate, they could not read nor write.
  • 391 participants spoke two or more languages
  • 240 participants were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease
  • 189 had diagnosed vascular dementia
  • 119 had diagnosed frontotemporal dementia
  • The remainder had mixed dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies

After evaluating the participants, researchers found that those who spoke a second language delayed certain types of dementia by an average of 4.5 years. There was no additional benefit to those who spoke more than two languages and education, gender, and occupation had no effect on the delay.

Why Would Speaking a Second Language Delay Dementia?

Although why this phenomenon occurs is not yet known, speaking two languages requires a specific type of brain training and switching between two languages requires a specific type of attention. That part of the brain, if exercised, may be what delays certain types of dementia.

“Speaking more than one language is thought to lead to better development of the areas of the brain that handle executive functions and attention tasks, which may help protect from the onset of dementia.” said study author Suvarna Alladi, DM, with Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India.

Future Studies May Show Dementia Delay Through Other Brain Activity

More studies in different places throughout the world need to be completed to see if the same effect is found. The study needs to be replicated in different populations and cultures to ensure there is not another factor in the delay of dementia.

Other studies may be able to show how learning a second language protects against dementia and if that effect can be replicated by other brain activity, such as learning an instrument or doing a puzzle.

Does this information make you want to learn a second language? Let us know in the comments.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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