Bilingualism a possible factor in inhibiting development of dementia

by Ray Clancy on December 4, 2013

Speaking more than one language may help fight of the effects of dementia in later life, new research has found.

According to a study carried out by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad in India, people who speak more than one language and who develop dementia tend to do so up to five years later than those who are monolingual.

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People who speak more than one language and who develop dementia tend to do so up to five years later than those who are monolingual

The scientists examined almost 650 patients with dementia and assessed when each one had been diagnosed with the condition. They found that the bilingual advantage extended to illiterate people who had not attended school.

The study is the largest so far to gauge the impact of bilingualism on the onset of dementia independent of a person’s education, gender, occupation, and whether they live in a city or in the country, all of which have been examined as potential factors influencing the onset of dementia.

The team of researchers say further studies are needed to determine the mechanism which causes the delay in the onset of dementia. The researchers suggest that bilingual switching between different sounds, words, concepts, grammatical structures and social norms constitutes a form of natural brain training, likely to be more effective than any artificial brain training programme.

However, studies of bilingualism are complicated by the fact that bilingual populations are often ethnically and culturally different from monolingual societies. India offers in this respect a unique opportunity for research. In places like Hyderabad, bilingualism is part of everyday life as knowledge of several languages is the norm and monolingualism an exception.

‘These findings suggest that bilingualism might have a stronger influence on dementia than any currently available drugs. This makes the study of the relationship between bilingualism and cognition one of our highest priorities,’ said Thomas Bak of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.

The study, published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, was supported by the Indian Department of Science and Technology and by the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) at the University of Edinburgh.

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