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Speaking multiple languages may delay onset of dementia

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Earlier in the year, Dementia News wrote an article about how speaking more than one language might help protect the brain against diseases in old age. A new study, reported in the Journal Neurology by researchers from the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Science in India, has also shown that the onset of dementia was delayed in those who could speak more than one language. Researchers reviewed the records of 648 people with dementia who lived in India and compared the ages they were diagnosed with initial symptoms. Within the group, 391 people reported that they could speak two or more languages.

Analysis showed that people who spoke more than one language displayed the first symptoms of dementia at an average age of 65.6 years of age whereas those who could only speak one language displayed symptoms at an average 61.1 years of age. An interesting finding was that this same result was seen among people with Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia. This relationship also held true even in illiterate people, suggesting that language ability and not education level was the key factor.

So how might speaking multiple languages reduce the risk of dementia, or delay the onset of symptoms? The authors suggest that it may be due to differences in attention span. Being less attentive is a common initial symptom in many dementias including Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia. The researchers suggest that attentiveness is improved when you speak multiple languages and that this may be associated with delayed onset.

The findings of this interesting study support the ‘cognitive reserve hypothesis’ which suggests that brains with more highly developed cognitive abilities (and a greater number of connections between brain cells) may be better able to compensate for damage associated with dementia, leading to a later onset of symptoms.

This study also shows how important it is to include regular challenging mental activity in your daily routine alongside plenty of exercise and a healthy diet in order to reduce the risk of dementia. See Alzheimer’s Australia’s Your Brain Matters website for more information and ideas.

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