Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bilingualism and Dementia

For my first blog, I chose to ponder two subjects that are very near and dear to my heart: dementia and being bilingual. I am very lucky in the fact that there are current studies that link the two subjects together, creating research that I thoroughly enjoy learning more about.  I have been studying Spanish for 9 years now and consider myself quite proficient in the language.  The idea that by just learning and speaking Spanish could help to slow the onset of dementia, a disease that has affected many members in my own family, is absolutely riveting.

The article that I read starts out by discussing some of the current findings on dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. Dementia is a neurological disorder that the cause has not yet been completely cracked, nor has a treatment for the disease been discovered.  There have been some treatments (mostly medications) that have been found to slow the progression of the dementia, but there is still no cure to reverse the damage that is done.

There are some non-medicinal activities that have been found to slow the progression also. Some of these activities include setting puzzles, reading, and learning new information.  The researchers in this article believe that being bilingual is also an activity or lifestyle that slows the onset of dementia. 

In the study, the researchers studied 184 people with dementia.  51% of the individuals had been bilingual for the majority of their life.  Doctors recorded the onset and progression of the individuals and found that the bilingual people had an onset of dementia four years later than the monolingual people.

This is an absolutely amazing discovery. Four years may not seem like that long of a time, but an extra four years with a loved one is, in my eyes, worth it. So, this makes me wonder... what is it about knowing more than one language that delays the onset of dementia? Is the delay simply because more of the brain is being used when and individual knows two languages, or is there something in the language portion of the brain that correlates to memory loss?  What if an individual learns three languages? Will that delay the onset even further?  It also makes me wonder if foreign language should be included in the elementary school curriculum in order to start stretching the brains of young people even more.  There seems to be so many what ifs when it comes to the prevention of this devastating disease, and only way to discover the cause and preventing seems to be increased research on the brain and its function. Adios!



  1. That's awesome. I have been thinking about trying to learn a second language (Spanish or Sign), but had feared that my 42 year old brain just couldn't hack it. But even if I do not become fluent, engaging my brain will be a good thing!

  2. Was just at Pharyngula. PZ asked to comment, so I will.

    I've been hearing about this research for a couple of years now. I'm in my early 50s and had (yes, had) to learn Spanish when I was 9, due to having grown up in TX. Well, it stuck.

    I ended up taking all the Spanish courses my JR an SR high had to offer, so I took a year of French as a supplement. Then, when I lived in Japan, I took Japanese for year (whew: hard!!). But since Spanish is essentially everywhere in the US, I've been able to use it all my life.

    I still write out translations on the inside of the shower door (when I'm showering, of course) even to this day, just for 'fun'. I guess it's a form of graffiti, no? I have three translation apps on my iPhone. Perhaps I'm obsessed.

    Anyway, I've been fascinated with other languages since those beginning days. Perhaps, it will help as I slip into older... and older... and older age.

  3. I must say, as a polyglot I am very interested! I have been learning languages from a very young age, and I'm 26 now. I first started with my native Spanish (I'm from Argentina), then French, later Italian, English and Arabic, a blind friend taught me Braille, (not really a language though), now I'm getting a good grip on Portuguese and struggling with German. Traveling and living abroad really helped a lot.

    I think I still have some flexibility when learning new languages, most of the time I see it as the association of different words to the same concept, of course when you have a good mental database of words it's rather easy correlating similar languages. For example, Portuguese is fairly easy given that I'm already proficient in Spanish, French and Italian. It's like a game, really.

    I hope to read further material about this!

  4. I'm 67 and multilingual.

    I think the limited subset of English as used on Fox News ACCELERATES the onset of dementia ;-)

  5. My father suffered from dementia for the last years of his life. He learned French as a child and learned Russian and Spanish* as an adult. A year or so before he died he told me he had lost his knowledge of Russian and Spanish but he was still fluent in French. He believed this loss of language was due to his dementia (he was aware he was suffering from the condition).

    Watching my father's dementia progress was quite disheartening to me. My father was one of the most intelligent, knowledgeable people I've ever met. He went from that condition to a confused, disoriented person with very limited short term memory and loss of a lot of knowledge he'd once had. He still retained a good bit of long term memory however. He could remember details of his military service in World War II very well. He remembered 1943 perfectly, but remembering what he had for breakfast that morning, or even if he had had breakfast, was quite shaky.

    Incidentally, I'm 63. I've begun to notice my short term memory is not as good as it once was.

    *In the 1950s my father, who was a mechanical engineer, wrote a book on fuels and lubricants. A colleague of his, who was originally from Mexico, mentioned that technical books in Spanish were quite uncommon. So my father taught himself Spanish and translated his book into Spanish. The English edition of the book was out of print in five or six years but the Spanish translation remained in print for over 20 years. The royalties for the Spanish edition were almost ten times the amount of the English edition royalties. Learning a second or third language can be useful.

  6. Very interesting post!

    I know this is a bit off-topic, but I was recently discussing language and dementia with my sister-in-law. Neither of us has special expertise in either field, but she works at local care center for elderly patients, many of whom have some form of dementia. We live in Sweden (though I am from the US) and most of her patients are native Swedish speakers, but she said that several of the dementia patients with language difficulties seem to fall into a pattern of speaking English with her instead of Swedish. My sister-in-law is also a native Swedish speaker and while she can speak decent English, she is far better at Swedish. There is no reason to think that these patients would have assumed that she could only understand English. She said that she also has a patient who is a native Arabic speaker and had also learned Swedish. He also speaks English with her. I know this is anecdotal and second-hand, but I'm wondering if you are aware of any studies that have documented this behavior. I would be quite interested in taking a look at them!

  7. What if an individual learns three languages? Will that delay the onset even further?

    That was the first thought that struck me, too. Also, I noted this

    ...had been bilingual for the majority of their life

    It would be interesting to see if this effect only occurs if you learn the languages early or if you can still gain a benefit from learning a new language later in life.

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  10. Sorry, those are both my comments above. My Google account is linking strangely so I thought I'd delete both and try again. I was expecting it to link to Google+ but apparently it doesn't.

    Anyway, I did my degrees in linguistics and there are interesting neurolinguistic studies out there about brain plasticity in bilingual/multilingual people. Research has found that second language acquisition increases density of grey matter, more so in people who acquired the second language at an early age.

    True bilingualism in interesting in and of itself. When I was in school, our rule of thumb was what language the person would think in while doing a complicated math problem. Most people fluent in two languages have a dominant or preferred language, but a subset of people are equally at home in both languages.

    Now I'm off on a tangent, but this is one reason why I get rabid when right-wingers campaign against bilingual education. Just a little research and you would realize it benefits all of us. Europe figured this out ages ago (I have a Hungarian friend who speaks about seven languages and doesn't even think of that as unusual), but in the U.S. it's a badge of honor to know only only language.

  11. I also wonder whether learning languages that are vastly more different, would amplify the effect (in relation to dementia) more than other languages.

    So, Spanish is not nearly as different to English as Japanese is, for example.

    Therefore, what is the effect of knowing 2 very different languages over 2 that belong to the same family (I never really admire multilingual capability between the IndoEurasian languages, since basically "it's not that hard" relatively speaking ie English/Spanish/French/German).

    To be fluent in Japanese is to understand vastly different concepts and culture, just to comprehend fairly basic sentences. For example, you "rise" into a house instead of just "enter" because of the way they're built allowing for the "shoe area". And of course, you have to study vastly different characters & writing systems.

    So my query is does extreme diversity count for something here?
    I think it must, because it seems that the initial benefit is derived from the mind diversifying in simply "knowing" the language in the first place.

    So in the slapstick case: "learning an extremely different language" could offset dementia for (on average) even longer?

  12. In a global context bilingualism and, more commonly, multilingualism would almost have to be the norm: I frequently travel to Africa where a significant proportion of people comfortably function in four or more languages on a daily basis. In many cases each of the speakers' parents and grandparents come from a different language background and a common pidgin or creole is used when all together.
    It would be interesting to investigate whether cases of dementia/Alzheimers are quantitatively lower in such societies as compared to generally monolingual societies.