Knowing two languages helps ward off dementia

By Laura Mize • Published: February 11th, 2014
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Want to delay the possible onset of dementia in your senior years?

Try learning a new language. Research suggests doing so may beef up your brain’s abilities and help push dementia symptoms back by about four years, compared to people who speak only one language.

The authors of a study recently published in the journal Neurology examined medical records of more than 600 dementia patients from India, a nation where multilingualism is common. They also interviewed patients’ family members to learn what languages the patients spoke. After analyzing the data, the investigators found that people who spoke at least two languages were on average about four-and-a-half years older than their monolingual peers when dementia symptoms emerged.

The study included people who could not read and found similar effects in them. This shows the delay in dementia symptoms is not due to education, but rather to something else that happens in the brain.

The ability to focus on and use one language at a time, and to switch between languages, has been a subject of past research. Previous studies have suggested these skills build up key brain functions. Perhaps this is what helps multilingual people keep dementia at bay.

So, if knowing two languages can help stave off dementia, what about knowing three? Unfortunately, the study results show that knowing more than two languages doesn’t seem to provide extra protection against dementia.

By now you may itching to learn another language. Ask your local library or community college if they offer language classes or resources you can borrow to get started. Then, practice. Immerse yourself in the language by spending time with others who speak it. Try not to get discouraged if learning proves difficult. The effort gives your brain a workout, a positive step on its own.