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Could being bilingual delay the onset of dementia?

Could being bilingual delay the onset of dementia?
2nd June 2014

Possessing the ability to speak two or more languages fluently could potentially delay the onset of degenerative conditions such as dementia, according to new research.

This is the finding of a paper published in the Annals of Neurology journal, following a study by scientists at the University of Edinburgh.

A team led by Dr Thomas Bak analysed the results of intelligence tests taken by 262 participants at the age of 11, before they were examined again in their 70s. 

Each individual who was monitored was able to communicate well in at least one other language alongside English, although some had become bilingual in childhood and others in adulthood.

Doctors looked at the findings of the initial examinations and found speaking another language affected their cognitive abilities in later life significantly, with these surpassing original expectations.

It was discovered that being bilingual improved a person's general intelligence, as well as their reading skills and cognitive abilities, suggesting their brain was not ageing quite as quickly as others of the same age.

As the ageing of the brain is a prime factor regarding the onset of dementia, this is a significant finding as it suggests learning several languages could delay the onset of the degenerative disease.

Lead author of the paper Dr Thomas Bak concluded: "Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the ageing brain."

After reviewing the study, Dr Alvaro Pascual-Leone of the Harvard Medical School commented: "The epidemiological study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain.

"This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention."

While the paper has certainly presented some interesting findings with regard to delaying the onset of dementia, Dr Bak acknowledged a number of other questions had been raised as a result of the research, such as whether or not just knowing another language is enough, or if an individual needs to communicate in a different tongue regularly in order to keep the brain as active as possible for longer.

Find out about dementia care and support services at Barchester care homes.