Multilingualism can mean many things on a personal level, depending on who you ask. Some of us were made to sit through classes at school teaching secondary languages; some were taught by our parents to communicate with family; others chose or had to learn another language for travel, migration or career purposes; and yet more still simply learn for fun. I myself enjoy learning Spanish through Duolingo, and list Egyptian Arabic as another priority because of belly dancing. On a health level, speaking two or more languages can also protect our health and independence, as it may delay or prevent the onset of dementia.
What Learning a Language Can Do
An important thing to remember when adding dementia prevention to your list of reasons to go bilingual is that your proficiency matters. A study of several hundred nuns found that, when adjusted for age, ApoE-E4 status, occupation, education and immigrant status, women who reported speaking two or more languages did not have a reduced risk of dementia compared to monolingual women. However, when the authors adjusted for grammatical complexity, being bi- or multi-lingual was linked with a 75% lower risk of dementia! When ApoE-E4 status and age were held constant, women who spoke four or more languages had an 86% reduced risk. Many people who take up studying languages as a hobby do not take it too far, and only learn the basics, but this research shows that going in-depth with one or two may yield greater benefits than learning, say, three or four hundred words each in ten languages.
Studying secondary languages should not be relied on as the only way to prevent dementia, but it is effective. Multiple studies, including one on older Belgian adults, have found that being bilingual can delay a diagnosis of dementia by around four years. The Belgian study observed a delay in clinical manifestation by 4.6 years, and a 4.8-year delay in diagnosis; they controlled for mini-mental state examination (MMSE) scores on assessment to control for possible differences in care-seeking attitudes. Average age at diagnosis rose from 71.5 to 76.1. A larger Indian study that they discussed found a 4.5-year delay in clinical onset, with a similar effect seen in the illiterate people involved. Both of these mostly studied non-immigrants, as multiple languages are used daily in both countries, controlling for differences seen in migrants such as resilience that may be protective. Later onset also does not mean faster decline. Other described research from Canada had shown that cognitive decline among bilingual participants was no faster, and both bi- and mono-lingual subjects performed at the same level on diagnosis. Here, a delay in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by 3.5 years was observed, and there was a 7.2-year delay in Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis.
How it Works
Learning a language may both increase neuron count and aid compensation. People who speak more than one language have denser white and grey matter in the brain. At the same time, it takes a greater severity of brain degeneration to cause similar clinical symptoms as seen in a monolingual person. This is called “cognitive reserve”, meaning that a damaged brain has more resources to draw from in order to compensate for lost and degraded tissue. Switching between multiple languages may also improve neuroplasticity, possibly because culture – and therefore language – involves how we perceive the world (Doidge, 2007). For example, Western cultures are typically more reductionistic, while Asian cultures can be more holistic in how people understand the world. Cultures with a strong specialisation, such as working on or in the sea, raise children who perceive greater detail in this area than others could fathom.
Becoming bilingual is neither a cure nor silver bullet to avoid dementia, we must take a holistic approach where no stone is unturned, including gene testing for additional nutrient and detoxification needs, your environment, and your lifestyle. To book an appointment with me, contact me here or here. I am able to order functional pathology testing through NutriPATH.