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Being bilingual could help prevent dementia, study finds

Bilingualism can stave off the symptoms of dementia 5 to 7 years, according to new research

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Two studies are underway that target the very earliest brain changes while memory and thinking skills are still intact in hope of preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. William Burke goes over a PET brain scan Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 at Banner Alzheimers Institute in Phoenix. It may be too late to stop Alzheimer’s in people who already have some mental decline but Banner is conducting two studies that target the very earliest brain changes while memory and thinking skills are still intact in hope of preventing the disease.

Matt York, Associated Press

Learning more than one language can be extremely challenging but can have a host of benefits. One study found that it could even stave off dementia.

Can bilingualism help delay effects of dementia?

According to the journal Neurobiology of Aging, researchers in Germany reported “that active bilingualism is related to later onset of symptoms and, thus, diagnosis of dementia by as much as 5-7 years relative to comparable monolinguals, despite brains in both cases accruing increased pathology.”

“It’s promising that they report that early and middle-life bilingualism has a beneficial effect on cognitive health in later life,” Miguel Arce Rentería, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times. “This would line up with the existing literature.”

Bilingualism can help teach other life skills

Other neuroscientists have theorized that the ability to flip between two different languages could increase abilities in other life skills — “such as multitasking, managing emotions and self-control — that help delay dementia later on,” per the Times.

“Our results contribute to research that indicates that speaking more than one language is one of a number of lifestyle factors that contributes to cognitive reserve,” Natalie Phillips, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University, told Medical News Today.

In the past, being bilingual was often viewed as disadvantageous, “because bilingual children have smaller vocabularies in both languages and are slower in word recall,” NPR reported.

How many Americans are bilingual?

Alzheimer’s makes up 60% to 70% of dementia cases, and in one five-year study by York University, researchers found that bilingual people had “high cognitive reserve,” while classifying “monolingual people as having low cognitive reserve.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a total of only 21.6% of Americans can speak a language other than English in their homes.

But don’t fret if you weren’t speaking two different languages in your childhood. It’s just one factor that can help with memory in later years, Ellen Bialystok, a research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, told NPR.

“If you’re not bilingual but you’re active and engaged, you’re getting cognitive reserve,” Bialystok told NPR.