Speaking two tongues helps lick dementia, study finds

By: Oliver Moore
The Globe and Mail January 12, 2007

TORONTO — Knowledge of more than one language has been linked by Canadian researchers to a significant delay in the onset of dementia symptoms.

Fluency in two or more languages may be able to stave off cognitive decline because of the mental agility required to juggle them in day-to-day life, principal investigator Ellen Bialystok said.

“How you learn the language probably doesn’t make much difference; how good your grammar is probably doesn’t matter,” she said last night. “What matters is that you have to manage two complete language systems at once.”

Dr. Bialystok, an associate scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, said that the results of the study were not completely a surprise. But they were more dramatic than she had anticipated.

“It’s a much larger effect than I expected,” she said. “You do research because you hope that your ideas are right. But I am always surprised; I always have the ‘wow’ reaction. And in this case the results were so clear.”

Looking at 184 Toronto-area people, the research team found striking differences in the appearance of dementia, which refers to mental decline beyond the normal effects of aging.

Among the unilingual people studied, dementia began to appear in men at an average age of 70.8 and in women at 71.9. But among those who knew two or more languages, dementia did not begin to appear in men until an average age of 76.1 and in women until 75.1.

Comparing the groups as a whole, the difference in the onset of dementia was 4.1 years.

The findings extend previous research that has appeared to show the benefits of crossword puzzles and other mental workouts.

“It’s another example of the effects of lifestyle on cognitive decline,” said Fergus Craik, an expert on age-related changes in memory processes who was part of Dr. Bialystok’s research team.

“It’s not like it stops dementia, but . . . it’s deferred,” the neuropsychologist added. “That, in and of itself, is hugely important.”

The investigators believe that their findings are not a function of cultural differences, immigration history, education, occupation or other factors. In fact, the unilingual subjects generally had more formal education, which would normally have been expected to delay the onset of dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term for the many diseases that can affect memory, language abilities, attention span and problem solving. Alzheimer’s disease is commonly viewed as the most destructive form of dementia, with the power to rob people of their memory and, eventually, their personality.

Betty Sinclair, director of support and education at the Alzheimer Society of British Columbia, said that even a diagnosis of the disease can be shattering.

“It goes from not being able to remember where you put your keys to forgetting what the keys are for,” she said, describing the early stages.

“It can be devastating to feel that they’ve lost control of what they can do.”

The disease is incurable and can be so destructive that Ms. Sinclair’s organization feels it important to remind the public that a person’s basic humanity remains even as Alzheimer’s is doing its worst.

“We encourage people to keep the idea of humanity,” she said. “Even when people have lost the majority of their cognitive abilities, their feelings and emotional needs are still quite present.”

Her organization launched last week a Healthy Brain campaign, marking national Alzheimer Awareness Month. They are urging Canadians to make choices, including learning a musical instrument or another language, in the hope of postponing and slowing the development of the disease.

Dr. Bialystok’s study, published in the February issue of Neuropsychologia, is based on the records of patients who had been referred in recent years to Toronto’s Baycrest Research Centre for Aging and the Brain. Approximately half of the 184 were unilingual and half knew more than one language, most commonly Polish, Yiddish and German.

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