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Can Learning a New Language Slow the Onset of Dementia?

November 6, 2019

You may have heard or read that learning a foreign language can prevent dementia, or at least slow the progression of the disease. In order to explore this idea further, let us look at what we know about the brain as well as what is known about the onset of dementia. Dementia is a catch all term for medical conditions that affect a person's ability to perform activities for daily living. Alzheimer's disease, which causes memory loss, is the most common type of dementia. However, dementia disorders also affect problem solving, thinking skills and language. Early signs of the disease process include increasing confusion, reduced ability to concentrate and problems remembering recent events.

Although it makes for an easy analogy, assuming brain cells can benefit from a mental workout in the same way muscle mass can benefit from routine exercise is somewhat misleading. In fact, researchers know the brain is not a muscle but do not know for sure if can really benefit from language exercises. People who like to do crossword puzzles often believe the task of solving these puzzles is providing cognitive benefits. Nonetheless, researchers conclude that it is more likely solving crossword puzzles simply makes you better at solving crossword puzzles. The best evidence that learning a new language could boost your body's production of new brain cells comes from studies that compared a number of cognitive measures in bilingual and monolingual individuals.

What we do know is that children who grow up in bilingual households learn both languages in the same area of their brain, whereas learning a second language later in life; a separate area develops in the brain close to the first. A memory study conducted in Canada tracked the histories of monolinguals and bilinguals and discovered the monolinguals reached an average age of 71.4 years before the onset of dementia whereas the bilinguals had an average age of 75.5 years. In a separate study conducted in India, strikingly similar results were obtained with bilingual patients developing symptoms 4.5 years later than monolinguals. Nonetheless, further research is needed before learning a foreign language is prescribed as a cure all for dementia.

It is however important to note that people who speak more than one language enjoy certain cognitive benefits and have been shown to exhibit better listening skills. Moreover, learning second language improves the knowledge of one's own language. It also increases cultural awareness and allows you to communicate with people in a different way. Studies have demonstrated that older individuals who lead a more active social life and are more involved in their community live healthier lives than those who rarely leave home and fail to interact with other people. So, even if studying a foreign language can't delay the onset of dementia, it can confer a host of cognitive benefits (and maybe new friends) that can improve your well-being. A popular Czech proverb says...

"You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once." 

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