Bilingualism delays onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms

A research team led by scientists at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) have found more dramatic evidence that speaking two or more languages over many years can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by as much as five years.

This research builds upon the findings of a previous study in 2007. The latest study was published in the November 9, 2010 issue of Neurology.

The new study examined the clinical records of approximately 200 patients diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s at the Baycrest Memory Clinic. Fewer than half the patients were classified as bilingual and the rest as monolingual.

The researchers found that the bilingual patients had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4.3 years later and had reported the onset of symptoms five years later than the monolingual patients.

“We are not claiming that bilingualism in any way prevents Alzheimer’s or other dementias, but it may contribute to cognitive reserve in the brain which appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms for quite some time,” says lead investigator Dr. Fergus Craik, senior scientist, RRI, and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Memory.

The brains of people who speak two languages still show deterioration from Alzheimer’s disease; however, their special ability with two languages seems to provide them with compensatory skills to hold back the tell-tale symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as memory loss, confusion, and difficulties with problem-solving and planning.

“Although a great deal of research is being focused on the development of new and more effective medications for Alzheimer’s disease, there are currently no drug treatments that show any effects on delaying Alzheimer’s symptoms, let alone delaying the onset of these symptoms by up to five years,” says Dr. Morris Freedman, head of Neurology and director of the Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic at Baycrest.

“These results are especially important for multicultural societies like ours in Canada where bilingualism is common,” says Dr. Ellen Bialystok, professor of Psychology, York University, and associate scientist, RRI. “We need to understand how bilingualism changes cognitive ability, especially when there are clinical implications as in this case.”

Photo © Marcel Mooij

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