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Patrick Guilfoile: To avoid dementia, learn a second language

I’ve known several relatives who suffered from dementia.

Their downward spiral started with memory loss, and progressed to a nearly complete loss of awareness of the past and a lack of understanding of the future.

Most difficult of all was when they no longer recognized their spouse or other family members.

That loss of memory strikes at the heart of what it means to be human and creates a heavy burden in caring for someone who can no longer take care of themselves.

If current trends continue, the present flood of dementia patients will become a torrent, as those of us in the baby boom generation reach an age where dementia becomes more common.

Yet, recent research suggests that a relatively simple method may be available for pushing back the onset of dementia for up to five years.

And it doesn’t require popping pills or any other medical intervention.

A couple of years ago, researchers in Toronto found that individuals who were bilingual appeared to have a delay in the onset of dementia.

But most of the bilingual people in that study were immigrants, and it was hard to separate the confounding environmental and other factors that distinguished the immigrants from native Canadians.

Therefore, many considered the research tantalizing, but not definitive.

In more recent work, researchers from India and the United Kingdom studied 648 individuals who visited a memory clinic out of concern they were showing signs of dementia.

These individuals were all native to India, and about half were bilingual.

Patients were diagnosed with dementia based on several psychological tests.

Their language usage, education, income and other characteristics were based on interviews with family members.

The key finding in the study was that bilingual people, on average, developed dementia nearly five years later than monolingual individuals did.

This effect appeared to be hold regardless of education, income or other factors that might have an effect on brain function and the onset of dementia.

This delay in the onset of dementia also held up in individuals who were illiterate, further strengthening the connection between bilingualism and retaining mental function.

This research doesn’t explain the mechanics of how being multilingual protects against the onset of dementia.

One hypothesis is that bilingual individuals are constantly suppressing one language, and the mental gymnastics required to do that enhance brain functions that are among the first affected when a person develops dementia.

Having routinely exercised those abilities when speaking two languages, it appears that bilingual individuals develop a reserve of mental capacity that delays dementia. So take a language course, travel to a foreign country, or buy language-learning software — your brain (and your relatives) will thank you.

More information is available in the following article: Survana Alladi and others, “Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status.” Neurology, Vol. 81, pages 1-7, 2013

PATRICK GUILFOILE has a doctorate in bacteriology and is the associate vice president at Bemidji State University.