Learning a New Language May Delay Alzheimer’s Symptoms

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Can learning more than one language help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

Not exactly, but if you’re already affected by the illness, being bilingual may buy you some time. According to the Daily Mail, scientists at York University in Toronto found that bilingual individuals affected by Alzheimer’s generally sought treatment for symptoms 3.2 years later than people who spoke only one language. On average, bilingual people were 78.6 years old when they began to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s, compared to 75.4 for people who only spoke one language.

To explain the effect, the Daily Mail went to one of the scientists who conducted the study:

“Speaking two languages isn’t going to do anything to dodge the bullet,’ said Ellen Bialystok…But she added that improved cognitive reserve was ‘the same as the reserve tank in a car: Once the brain runs out of fuel, it can go a little farther’.

The researchers believe that constantly switching back and forth from one language to another “exercises” the brain and increases its ability to focus, blunting the effects of Alzheimer’s for the first few years. It’s important to note that learning another language does nothing to slow the physical advancement of the disease, according to the York University website:

Dr. Bialystok and her colleagues looked at brain images of monolingual and bilingual Alzheimer’s patients at the same age and stage of disease. They found that the brains of the bilingual people appeared to be in worse physical condition. This suggests that bilingualism doesn’t delay the disease process itself, but rather helps bilingual individuals better handle memory deficits, Dr. Bialystok says.

With only 228 patients, the sample size seems small, but then again, taking a language class or using an online study program certainly can’t hurt. If nothing else, you’ll increase your ability to travel internationally and you just might make yourself more employable, so it’s definitely worth a shot!