Does Being Bilingual Delay The Onset Of Dementia?

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Everyone wants to learn another language, but many of us never get around to it or truly commit. We romanticize being able to communicate in another language and speak with the cultured Europeans we imagine or to simply be able to have a meaningful conversation with the Latino neighbors. But, we rarely imagine the actual benefits of being bilingual.

Being able to speak more than one language means much more than being able to share a simple conversation. It means being able to navigate in at least two cultures. It also means you have a lower risk for developing earlier dementia, according to a new study published in Neurology.

Brett Smith reports a team of British and Indian scientists tracked 650 dementia patients, recording when each patient was diagnosed. Those who spoke more than a single language were routinely diagnosed up to five years later than those who only spoke one language.

“We know from other studies that mental activity has a certain protective effect,” study author Thomas Bak, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland told USA Today. “Bilingualism combines a lot of different mental activities. You have to switch sounds, concepts, grammatical structures, cultural concepts. It stimulates your brain all the time.”

Interestingly, you don’t have to be able to read even a single language for this to be true. The research was noted to correlate even when extended to illiterate individuals. This shows the effect has nothing to do with formal education.
The researchers investigated patients who visited a clinic in the city of Hyderabad, the largest city of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, noting that resident of this city often speak two or three languages. Most speak a combination of India’s official language, a local dialect, and English.

“Since bilingualism is more of a norm in India, bilingualism is not a characteristic of any particular socioeconomic, geographic or religious group,” said Suvarna Alladi, a neurologist at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad.

The results aren’t confined to India however. The findings reflect the results from two previous studies conducted in Canada which found a later onset of Alzheimer’s disease in bilingual patients. Those studies were less notable however, as they were conducted on a smaller sample size and most of the bilinguals in the studies were immigrants. Critics suggested the immigrants may have significant differences from the general population.

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