Bilingualism reported to delay onset of Alzheimer’s

There’s good news for expat retirees struggling to learn Spanish. A Canadian science team has found more dramatic evidence that speaking two languages can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by as much as five years, according to the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, a University of Toronto affiliate.

The conclusion comes from a study that looked at the clinical records of 200 patients who were suspected of having Alzheimer’s disease, Baycrest said. The study, being published today in the research journal Neurology, found that those who have spoken two or more languages consistently over many years experienced a delay in the onset of their symptoms by as much as five years.

“We are not claiming that bilingualism in any way prevents Alzheimer’s or other dementias, but it may contribute to cognitive reserve in the brain which appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms for quite some time,” said Fergus Craik. He is the lead investigator and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Memory. He was quoted in a Rotman release.

The brains of people who speak two languages still show deterioration from Alzheimer’s pathology; however, their special ability with two languages seems to equip them with compensatory skills to hold back the tell-tale symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as memory loss, confusion, and difficulties with problem-solving and planning, the study concluded.
“These results are especially important for multicultural societies like ours in Canada where bilingualism is common,” said Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University and associate scientist at the Rotman Research Institute. “We need to understand how bilingualism changes cognitive ability, especially when there are clinical implications as in this case.”

The institute gave this description of the study:

Observations were made on 211 patients diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s at Baycrest, from 2007 to 2009. The patients’ date of diagnosis and age of onset of cognitive impairment were recorded along with information on occupational history, education and language history (i.e. fluency in English and any other languages). Following this procedure, 102 patients were classified as bilingual and 109 as monolingual.

The researchers found that bilingual patients had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms five years later than the monolingual patients. The groups were equivalent on measures of cognitive and occupational level, and there were no gender differences.

The current study adds to mounting scientific evidence that lifestyle factors, such as regular cardiovascular exercise, a healthy diet, and speaking more than one language, can play a central role in how the brain copes with age-related cognitive decline and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, said the institute in its release.

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