Watch your language. It could protect you from Alzheimer’s disease. In the November 9 Neurology, researchers in Canada reported that onset of dementia is delayed in people who speak two or more languages. Fergus Craik, from the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, Toronto, and colleagues found that bilingual patients, on average, are 5.1 years older than monolingual patients when they first show symptoms of cognitive impairment, and bilingual patients are 4.3 years older when formally diagnosed with AD. The findings are dramatic, according to the authors. “There are currently no pharmacologic interventions that have shown comparable effects,” they write. The study confirms earlier results from the same group linking bilingualism to protection from all types of dementia (Bialystok et al., 2007).
But before you invest in those online linguistic courses, caveat emptor. The study, of 211 people with probable AD was retrospective and cross-sectional in design, making it unclear if it was the bilingualism per se that delayed onset of dementia, or some other characteristic of polyglots. The researchers ruled out obvious factors, including immigration status (had no effect on age at onset) and the amount of formal education, which has been shown to protect against dementia (bilingual patients had less formal education). Nevertheless, they note that a prospective study would yield more definitive results.
Another recent study of language and dementia tells a slightly different story. Also conducted in Canada, it found that multilingualism, but not bilingualism, protects against AD in non-immigrant populations, whereas bilingualism is protective in immigrant populations (see Chertkow et al., 2010).
If multilingualism can protect against dementia, then it may be because it has laid some groundwork that helps neurons communicate in the face of encroaching pathology. “Our interpretation...is that bilingualism is a cognitively demanding condition that contributes to cognitive reserve in much the same way as do other stimulating intellectual and social activities,” write Craik and colleagues. The downside for monoglots (who are outnumbered by polyglots according to Wikipedia) is that for some it may be too late to brush up on that second language. Craik’s study only looked at people who were bilingual for the majority of their lives—since at least early adulthood. It is not clear if adopting another language in mid-life would bring any benefit. Quel dommage!—Tom Fagan
- Bialystok E, Craik FI, Freedman M. Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia. 2007 Jan 28;45(2):459-64. PubMed.
- Chertkow H, Whitehead V, Phillips N, Wolfson C, Atherton J, Bergman H. Multilingualism (but not always bilingualism) delays the onset of Alzheimer disease: evidence from a bilingual community. Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord. 2010 Apr-Jun;24(2):118-25. PubMed.
- Craik FI, Bialystok E, Freedman M. Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology. 2010 Nov 9;75(19):1726-9. PubMed.