Can You Ward Off Alzheimer’s With a Second Language?

Can You Ward Off Alzheimer’s by Learning a Second Language?

globe flags[1]According to recent scientific studies, learning a second language can significantly delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Talk about an amazing discovery! To think that such a seemingly simple thing as learning to speak more than one language could actually give someone a few more years of lucidity before this all-too-common disease of old age begins to rob them of their cognitive abilities.

If you have been through the experience of watching a loved one slowly succumb to the clutches of Alzheimer’s, you understand how frightening it can be for them. Watching a family member slip away into a place that robs them of their ability to function and communicate normally can be heart wrenching. Physically, they are present, but mentally they move out of reach. For many of us, the thought that we might someday slip into that same abyss of mental confusion is extremely unnerving. That is why this new discovery regarding the link between bilingual and multilingual speaking and the delay of Alzheimer’s onset is so exciting.

The Scientific Research

The study regarding this Alzheimer’s research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Washington D.C. in February of 2011, after having been published in the Nov. 9, 2010 issue of the journal ‘Neurology’. Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, and a team of researchers, conducted the study on 450 people suffering from Alzheimer’s, all at a similar level of progression in the disease. Half of the participants spoke two languages fluently and the other half only spoke their native tongue. Through the analysis of the group’s CT scans, the researchers were able to determine that the bilingual group received initial diagnosis of the disease four or five years later than the group who only spoke one language.

Although being bilingual doesn’t prevent the disease, the researchers stated that it does appear to delay the onset of the debilitating symptoms, giving the individual about four more years of lucid living as a result.

The researchers admit that they don’t fully understand the connection between the linguistics and the evident affect it has on the brain, but they do have some theories as to how it works. Previous research has shown that bilingual people exercise a brain network called the executive control system more, which is the most important part of your mind, according to Dr. Bialystok.

“It controls attention and everything we think of as uniquely human thought,” she said.

The theory is that bilingual people have to continually exercise this area of the brain system to prevent their two languages from interfering with one another. The fact that bilingual persons have areas of denser gray matter in the language areas of the brain has already been documented in other research. One of the theories behind this bilingual phenomenon is that speaking two or more languages may increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain and keep nerve connections healthier.

Who Can Benefit From Learning a New Language?

A natural question that enters into this discussion is whether or not you have to have been bilingual most of your life to reap the cognitive benefits related to this research or if becoming fluent in a second language later in life can still provide an advantage in warding off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. According to psychologist Teresa Bajo of the University of Granada in Spain, even those who become bilingual later in life may experience the same benefits of those who became bilingual early in life.

That means that even if you are in your forties, fifties or sixties, it isn’t too late to begin the process of learning a second language and beginning to exercise that ‘executive control system’ that Dr. Bialystok referred to.

It is important to note that simply learning a few phrases or words in another language is not the same as being bilingual. In order to reap the benefits touted in these studies, a person must become fluent in more than one language, which requires ongoing use of the language as it is learned. However, even the process of learning a new language is bound to exercise and increase the activity of the language area of your brain. Just like any other part of our body, the more active it is, the healthier it will be. The healthier it is, the better able it is to fight off disease.

Another study, conducted by the Tel Aviv University on individuals between the ages of 75 and 95, concluded that the more languages an elderly person spoke, the greater their cognitive ability. Another interesting aspect of their findings was the fact that educational background did not seem to be an influence on these results. In fact, those with the highest cognitive results actually had the least amount of education.


Neurological studies related to the bilingual brain are ongoing and branch out into many different areas, including the effect of concentration and learning in children and the treatment of brain injuries which affect an individual’s ability to verbalize and understand speech. There is one conclusion that all the researchers seem to agree on, however; that is that the ability to speak proficiently in more than one language is beneficial to individuals both cognitively, as well socially and culturally. Benefits that many individuals, particularly Americans, miss out on, because of our dependence on our native tongue.


Kathleen Krueger is a full time freelance writer from Brainerd, Minnesota. She is known for her creative, casual style and has developed strong client relationships in the online community in addition to her contributions to print magazines and is trying to learn French.

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