I've heard that learning a second language can help delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Is this true?
Answers from Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.
Possibly. Studies on the connection between bilingualism and a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease have had conflicting results.
Some studies have shown that if you know two or more languages — and you have risk factors for Alzheimer's — you may experience a delay in the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms. Some researchers believe being bilingual or multilingual helps develop your brain's cognitive reserve in the same way that engaging in other mentally and socially stimulating activities does.
However, other studies have not found a clear connection between being bilingual and having a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease. More research is needed before it's completely understood how cognitive reserve works to delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
It's thought that activities that develop cognitive reserve work because they increase the robustness of your brain's architecture — enriching blood flow, enhancing the activity of neurons and putting more of your brain to use. This may make up for the loss of diseased parts of the brain.
Engaging in a variety of activities, especially those promoting mental and social stimulation, may help people at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or dementia slow or delay its onset.
And if you're interested in learning another language, go for it. However, more research is needed before it's known whether learning a second language later in life has the same protective effect as might a lifetime of speaking a second language.
Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.
Nov. 03, 2017
- Cheng S-T. Cognitive reserve and the prevention of dementia: The role of physical and cognitive activities. Alzheimer Current Psychiatry Reports. 2016;18:85.
- Padilla C, et al. Bilingualism in older Mexican-American immigrants is associated with higher scores on cognitive screening. BMC Geriatrics. 2016;16:189.
- Bialystok E, et al. Aging in two languages: Implications for public health. Aging Research Reviews. 2016;27:56.
- Alladi S, et al. Bilingualism delays the onset of behavioral but not aphasic forms of frontotemporal dementia. Neuropsychologia. 2017;99:207.