I've heard that learning a second language can help delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Is this true?
Answers from Ronald Petersen, 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've been diagnosed as likely to develop 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 neuronal activity and putting more of your brain to use. This may compensate 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.
Oct. 10, 2014
Ronald Petersen, M.D.
See more Expert Answers
- Yeung CM, et al. Is bilingualism associated with a lower risk of dementia in community-living older adults? Cross-sectional and prospective analyses. Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders. In press. Accessed Aug. 3, 2014.
- Zahodne LB, et al. Bilingualism does not alter cognitive decline or dementia risk among Spanish-speaking immigrants. Neuropsychology. 2014;28:228.
- Perquin M, et al. Lifelong exposure to multilingualism: New evidence to support cognitive reserve hypothesis. PLOS ONE. 2013;8:e62030.