The benefits of being bilingual can extend beyond being able to locate the toilets when holidaying abroad.
A team of researchers have found that a lifelong use of two or more languages can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Their study focussed on patients diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s.
The age the symptoms of the degenerative brain disease presented, along with patients’ educational and language histories, was recorded by the researchers. Of the 211 patients, 109 were classified as monolingual, and 102 as fluent in two or more languages.
The study found that bilingual patients first reported symptoms of the disease around five years later than monolingual patients.
This work provides additional evidence to past research that suggests bilingualism can help slow symptoms of Alzheimer’s as well as other forms of dementia.
“All the patients in the study had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so clearly bilingualism does not prevent the onset of dementia,” said study co-author Ellen Bialystok, research professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health, Canada.
“Instead, our results show that people who have been lifelong bilinguals have built up a cognitive reserve that allows them to cope with the disease for a longer period of time before showing symptoms” she continued.
Characterised by memory loss and confusion, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, usually affecting people over the age of 65.
The cause of the disease is still not known, but research has linked it with brain protein deposits known as beta-amyloid plaques and twisted protein fibres – neurofibrillary tangles – inside the brain.
A study by the Alzheimer’s Society, published in 2007, predicted that the number of people suffering from the disease in the UK could be over a million by 2025.
“Overall, bilingualism should be seen as an important tool for healthy aging, along with exercise, diet, and other lifestyle choices,” said Professor Bialystok.
“It’s also another reason to encourage people in multicultural societies like ours to keep speaking their native tongue and pass it along to their children” she continued.
Picture courtesy of the US National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center
Craik, F., Bialystok, E., & Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve Neurology, 75 (19), 1726-1729 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181fc2a1c