Can Bilingualism Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Early Onset?

How long has learning a new language been on your bucket list? New evidence found by leading scientists regarding the relationship between bilingualism and mental health may just be what you needed to stop procrastinating and get started learning a language. According to recent studies conducted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, bilingualism does not just enhance memory and make our brains more flexible –it has the power to prevent Alzheimer’s early onset.

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In this article, we will take a look at these groundbreaking findings and we will explain how becoming fluent in a foreign language can help delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease early-stage signs.

The Role of Bilingualism In the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease

Imagine you could delay Alzheimer’s disease for up to five years simply by learning a language. This is exactly what an eclectic group of researchers is telling us we can do.

In May 2020, professor John Grundy (Iowa State University), and professors John Anderson and Kornelia Hawrylewicz (York University, Canada) co-wrote a paper based on extensive research called “Does Bilingualism Protect Against Dementia?”. In the study, the experts reviewed factors such as intelligence, educational background, and socioeconomic factors among patients with dementia to determine which had the most salient effect when it came to delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

According to their findings, the only factor that was consistent in slowing down the disease was bilingualism.

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Does this mean that speaking foreign languages is a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease altogether? Not exactly. What Grundy and his investigative team found out is that people who are fluent in at least one foreign language can halt Alzheimer’s symptoms for years because second language knowledge and frequent use act as a cognitive reserve that protects the brain.

While the disease eventually affects every patient in more or less the same way regardless of their linguistic abilities, the experts say, there is a marked tendency among bilinguals to be able to deter the symptoms for longer.

The Science Behind the Results

Bilingualism, when it comes to mental health in general and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease in particular, acts as a sort of memory bank. Just like working out consistently throughout your life can make your body stronger and delay your body’s natural ageing process, the mental activity involved in conscious language learning fortifies and re-codifies the brain’s cells and circuits, helping you fight off early signs of dementia and strengthening your cognitive power in general.

This is because the mental ‘workout’ provided by bilingualism cause changes in the brain that allow bilinguals to rely on the subcortical and posterior areas of their brain when they process information.

This ‘ability’, of course, is an unconscious one. If there was a switch, monolingual people would surely want to switch it too, as their brains wouldn’t have to depend on the more pressed frontal circuits.

As we become older, the dependence on this region of the brain is one of the biggest facilitators of the early onset of dementia. And this is exactly what we can prevent by learning a language.

A Well-Grounded Conclusion

Grundy has described these findings as “fascinating” and “robust”, emphasizing the consistency of the conclusions. And he’s not alone.

Also in 2020, Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor at York University, described foreign language use as the most formidable of all activities with neuroplastic benefits. But this wasn’t just an opinion. In fact, it was one of her most significant findings after testing the theory that bilingualism can serve as a cognitive reserve and thus delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in elderly patients. It is evident that languages can do a lot to prevent Alzheimer’s early onset.

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The results of Bialyostok’s study show, once again, that even though bilingual people can develop Alzheimer’s disease, they may be independent for a much longer time than people who speak only one language. Just imagine being able to buy four or five years of precious life by doing something that is as inherently useful and enriching as learning a language.

The good news about the role of language in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease is that these benefits are consistent regardless of what your first and second languages are. In a clinic with a large immigrant population, professors Mario F. Mendez, Diana Chavez, and Golnoush Akhlaghipour identified over 250 patients with Probable Alzheimer’s disease (AD) with evidence of cognitive degeneration and analyzed demographic variables such as native language (L1), second language (L2), age of onset of the disease, digit spans, word fluencies, and memory, among others.

The results show that a considerable number of bilinguals with various native languages (Farsi, Chinese, Arabic, and Tagalog, to name a few) had significant delays in ages of onset when compared to monolingual patients. According to the team, the frequent use of a second language was the only variable that consistently demonstrated to promote cognitive and neural resilience and help patients prevent Alzheimer’s early onset.

The Importance of Learning Languages

The importance that these findings have for individuals and societies is immense. If learning a foreign language can prevent Alzheimer’s early onset, this means that you may gain years of happiness, enjoyment, and independence without having to undergo any medical treatment.

At the same time, it would be an easy way in which all of us, as people living in a society, could become more aware of different cultures and the value of the traditions embedded in them, all while decreasing public healthcare costs related to mental diseases.

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Learning languages, then, is not only a way to get a better job or get by on your summer holidays. For those who embrace life and cherish the time they spend with their loved ones (or with themselves!) knowing a foreign language is a way of staying healthy, happy, and independent even in the later stage of your life.

If you want to prevent Alzheimer’s early onset, start today!

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All you have to do is send us a quick message and we’ll make sure you get a reply within one business day. We really hope to hear from you soon and have the privilege to accompany you on your next language-learning adventure.