Finding ways to preserve mental clarity as we age remains a major area of focus for neuroscientists. The current consensus is that an active, learning mind is one with the best chance of remaining sharp into its golden years.
New research published Wednesday in the journal Neurology suggests that people who speak more than one language have lower rates of three different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Researchers at Nizam's Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India, evaluated 648 people diagnosed with one form of dementia: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, or frontotemporal dementia. Study participants were 66 years old on average. More than half of them spoke two or more languages, and 14 percent were illiterate.
Regardless of education level, gender, occupation, or urban or rural living, researchers discovered that bilingual people developed dementia an average of four and a half years later than monolingual ones. These results were independent of whether a person could read or not.
Author Suvarna Alladi said that their study is the first to show that speaking a second language has a protective effect, regardless of a person's education level.
“Speaking more than one language is thought to lead to better development of the areas of the brain that handle executive functions and attention tasks, which may help protect from the onset of dementia,” she said in a statement accompanying the study.
Learning a New Language in the U.S.
Previous studies have shown the mental advantages of learning new tasks on a regular basis.
Whether you're new to the U.S. or a lifelong resident, learning a second—or third—language has proven to be challenging enough to help your brain stave off dementia.
One Gallup poll found that one in four Americans can hold a conversation in a language besides English, with Spanish, French, and German as the top three second languages.
In America, as in many developed countries, you don’t have to travel far to put your new foreign language skills to use.
In the U.S., English is the primary language spoken by 229 million residents, or about 72 percent of the population. According to a recent Gallup poll, that same percentage believes it’s important for new immigrants to learn English.
However, with one new immigrant entering the U.S. every 44 seconds, the changing linguistic landscape is providing ample opportunity to use newly learned languages. Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog are spoken by another 40 million Americans as their primary language.
Language Learning Resources
Many colleges and universities offer continuing education classes, and many senior centers offer classes in languages like Spanish, French, and Italian.
If you’re more inclined to study at your own pace, linguistic software like Rosetta Stone is a popular method to pick up a second or third language.
Free online courses like those available at Duolingo offer simple ways to begin learning at your leisure. Other sites like Luminosity.com offer other games and tools that help increase memory and retention, two things also associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.