Speaking More Than One Language Delays Alzheimer’s
From AOL Everyday Health:
WEDNESDAY, November 6, 2013 — A small but growing body of research is finding that people who are proficient in multiple languages have a lower risk of cognitive decline. In the largest study to date on the relationship between bilingualism and dementia, researchers from Hyderabad, India, and Edinburgh, Scotland, demonstrated that bilingualism may stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia for several years. Their study was published in the journal Neurology.
The research team in Hyderabad evaluated 648 people who had dementia symptoms for 6 months to 11 years before enrolling in the study; 391 of the subjects were bilingual. The researchers found those who were bilingual developed dementia on average 4.5 years later than people who spoke only one language. On average, bilinguals developed dementia symptoms by age 65.6 compared with age 61.1 in people who spoke only one language.
“Nowadays, a lot of companies are having expensive brain-training programs, but I’d say bilingualism is very cheap,” said Thomas Bak, MD, a lecturer in human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, and second author on the study. “The crucial thing about bilingualism is that it offers what we say is constant brain training. A bilingual person Is forced to switch to different sounds, words, concepts, grammatical structure, and social norms.”
Dr. Bak’s study demonstrated the impact bilingualism has not only on the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but also on other types of dementia. Though the majority of patients in the group studied (37 percent) had Alzheimer’s-related dementia, 29.2 percent had vascular dementia, a type caused by reduced blood flow in the brain from stroke. Frontotemporal lobe dementia — from atrophy or shrinkage of certain areas of the brain — accounted for 17.9 percent of the diagnoses. Lewy body dementia, the second most common type of progressive dementia and one that is related to Parkinson’s disease, accounted for 8.5 percent, while 7.4 percent of people in the study were diagnosed with mixed dementia.
The researchers found bilingualism had the most dramatic effect on people who were diagnosed with frontotemporal lobe dementia. Knowing multiple languages delayed dementia symptoms by as much as six years in this group. Individuals with vascular dementia had an average of almost four extra years before dementia symptoms set in. However, individuals who knew three or four languages weren’t protected longer from dementia symptoms than those who were only proficient in two languages.
The More Different the Languages, the Better
The World Health Organization estimates 35.6 million people in the world have dementia, with 7.7 million new cases every year. And in India the problem is expected to grow even more dire. In 2009, the World Alzheimer’s Report projected India will have 10 million dementia patients by the year 2020. This was the impetus behind the new research, said Suvarna Alladi,MD, lead author of the study, which was funded by the Indian Department of Science and Technology.
“Dementia has become a major public health problem in India, and research that explores potentially protective mechanisms is of tremendous importance,” said Dr. Alladi. “Since many people in India can fluently speak two or more languages in their daily life, it’s heartening for us to know that something that we take for granted may protect our brains from developing dementia early.”
Teluga is the official state language in Hyderabad. Natives of the city are often also proficient in Hindi and Dakkhini, which more closely shares roots with English than with Teluga. This raises questions about the brain and “linguistic distance,” said Bak.
“You could argue the more different languages are, the better they are for the brain,” Bak said. “However you can also argue that when you speak languages that are so closely related you have to suppress one.”
Scientists have also become interested in whether cognitive abilities can be retained in similar ways if a person doesn’t learn a second language until later on in life, but there are yet no studies on this topic. However, many researchers, including Bak, speculate that a person who learns a second language later on life could glean similar benefits. “There are theories that would say you need the constant practice,” he said. “The fact that I can swim won’t make me healthy. If I actually go swimming it will make me healthier.”
Exercising the Brain
Numerous studies have found one of the best ways to slow cognitive decline is by mindfully engaging in brain-flexing activities, such as playing Suduko and crossword puzzles or reading books. I-Chant Andrea Chiang, MD, a professor who specializes in language psychology at Quest University Canada in Squamish, B.C., sees very little difference between language learning and any other type of brain exercise. “The brain is a muscle and it needs to be worked out like any other muscle,” said Dr. Chiang. “All those mental activities stimulate the brain and build up a cognitive reserve, even though there may be physical decline.”
Chiang has consulted with Ryan McMunn, who runs BRIC Language Systems headquartered in New York City. McMunn said a number of Alzheimer’s patients have sought out BRIC language classes online to help offset the symptoms of the disease, or are learning a second language because Alzheimer’s runs in the family. McMunn, who is American and lived in China after college, said his grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, but he wasn’t aware of the research on bilingualism and dementia until after he began learning to speak Mandarin, which he now does fluently.
“Honestly I can’t think of a more fun way of trying to postpone these things,” said McMunn. “Learn any language; it’s a fun thing to do and it allows you to communicate with new people. I look at it as very beneficial.”
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