Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


dementia-illustration

(PHOTO: LIGHTSPRING/SHUTTERSTOCK)

More Evidence Bilingualism Delays Onset of Dementia

• November 06, 2013 • 1:00 PM

(PHOTO: LIGHTSPRING/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Research from India shows the buffering effect of bilingualism even extends to the illiterate.

It’s very difficult to predict whether we’re going to be afflicted with dementia in our old age. But if that’s the trajectory we’re on, we’d surely like to delay its onset as long as possible.

Newly published research from India suggests one way of doing that might be to learn a second language.

“This is the largest study so far documenting a delayed onset of dementia in bilingual patients,” a research team led by neurologist Suvarna Alladi of Nizam’s Institutes of Medical Sciences writes in the journal Neurology.

“Overall, bilingual patients developed dementia 4.5 years later than the monolingual ones.”

The paper provides evidence that bilingualism slows the onset of three different types of dementia. It’s also the first study to show this dynamic also applies to the illiterate—a finding that suggests the protective effect of bilingualism “cannot be reduced to differences in education.”

Over the past few years, several small-scale studies have been released suggesting that knowing a second language delays dementia. To see if they could obtain similar results in their home country, Alladi and her colleagues studied case records of 648 patients who were diagnosed with dementia at a specialized clinic. More than half of them, 391, were bilingual.

“Overall, bilingual patients developed dementia 4.5 years later than the monolingual ones,” the researchers write. This effect, they add, “was shown independently of other potential confounding factors such as education, sex, occupation, and urban vs. rural dwelling of subjects.”

The four-and-a-half-year delay “was almost identical to that reported in previous studies,” Alladi and her colleagues add. It was consistent in three different types of dementia: frontotemporal, vascular, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Exactly why speaking two or more languages seems to protect against dementia remain unclear. A 2011 Canadian study that examined the brain atrophy of Alzheimer’s patients tentatively concluded it increases one’s “cognitive reserve,” meaning one could suffer more damage to the brain before becoming symptomatic.

Alladi and her colleagues speculate that the practice of switching quickly from one language to another may keep one’s “attention and executive functions” sharp, acting as a buffer against encroaching dementia.

“Our results offer strong evidence for the protective effect of bilingualism against dementia, in a population radically different from populations studied so far,” they conclude.

In other words, speaking multiple language seems to serve as a buffer against some of our most feared brain disorders—even beyond the “weird” world.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

Study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

Study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.