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Being Bilingual Can Delay Dementia

Researchers in Canada have found that speaking two languages over the course of one's life can help to delay the onset of dementia by approximately four years.

Dementia is defined as a progressive decline in brain function due to damage in the brain beyond what might be expected with normal aging. The most common symptoms of dementia are:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty with maintaining focus and attention
  • Deterioration of problem solving skills
  • Decline in language skills

Over the past several years, there has been growing societal interest in how we can use our dietary and lifestyle choices to build our cognitive reserves later in life. On a neurophysiological level, building cognitive reserve refers to

  1. Improving and maintaining a rich and healthy blood supply to the brain.
  2. Improving the ability to use alternative brain regions to compensate for a decline in health of areas of the brain that are typically responsible for specific functions like memory storage and the ability to problem solve.

Simply put, the greater our cognitive reserve, the less risk we have of developing symptoms of dementia.

Up until the publication of this most recent study that looked for a link between bilingualism and onset of dementia, the following factors were clearly identified by the scientific literature as being capable of reducing one's risk of developing symptoms of dementia:

  1. Regular intake of fresh vegetable juices.
  2. Regular intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
  3. Reaching and staying at a healthy weight for one's height.
  4. Regular participation in activities that are mentally stimulating.
  5. Minimizing exposure to aluminum.
  6. Avoiding vaccines and other sources of mercury.

We can now add bilingualism to this list, perhaps in the category of striving to stay mentally stimulated.

The study in question took place in Toronto, Canada at the Rotman Research Institute, and was published in the February 2007 edition of Neuropsychologia.

After evaluating medical data on 184 patients who visited their Memory Clinic between 2002 and 2005, researchers determined that the average age of onset of dementia symptoms in people who spoke only one language was 71.4 years, while the bilingual group had an average age of 75.5 years for onset of dementia symptoms.

This difference of slightly more than 4 years remained after researchers took into account factors like number of years of formal education, gender, employment, immigration, and any possible effects of cultural differences.

According to Dr. Morris Freedman, a neurologist who co-authored this study, "there are no pharmacological interventions that are this dramatic."

The authors of this study are now working on a follow-up study that will take a closer look at the role that bilingualism plays in delaying the onset of dementia.

For those of us who are not bilingual or working towards becoming bilingual, we can take comfort in knowing that many studies indicate that a wide variety of mentally stimulating activities can prevent dementia.

One such study, known as the Einstein Aging Study and published in the June 19, 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates that the following three activities provide strong, protective effects against the onset of dementia:

  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Playing board or card games
  • Reading

The Einstein Aging Study also looked at eleven different physical activities and their relationship, if any, to a delay in the onset of dementia. The study found that dancing was the only physical activity among the ones they evaluated that provided a significant, protective effect against dementia. Walking, swimming, doing housework, and babysitting were not found to have an effect on the age of onset of dementia.

Clearly, the frequency with which a person participates in mentally stimulating activities and the amount of effort that is applied are two important variables that go a long way towards building cognitive reserve and preventing dementia.

Also, it makes sense that physical activities that require significant concentration and thought can also help to build one's cognitive reserve. This would help to explain why dancing provides more of a protective effect against dementia than walking or swimming do; dancing often requires learning new movements and concentration, while walking and swimming can become relatively "mindless" activities, assuming that one is not creating a masterpiece in his or her head while walking and swimming.

It is worth noting that the Einstein Aging Study drew its conclusions from data that was gathered on approximately 500 people who were followed over a 21-year period. Of all of the peer-reviewed, published studies on this topic, the Einstein Aging Study has one of the longest follow-up periods.

The bottom line: we can all significantly decrease our risk of developing symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease by finding and regularly engaging in activities that get our melons excited.


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My father has dementia, and has recently gone into a home, as the full time care was too much for my mother. He is fluent in several languages, mostly learnt through travel and having to be able to read technical information (he was a very talented engineer in many fields of engineering). As his dementia has progressed, he has times when he will only talk in another language, as if his brain jumps from one tongue to another. He maintained his engineering consultancy work well into retirement, but the thing that really made his dementia visible is that he had no other activities planned when he retired, as work was his source of identity. Maybe you should add something to the list about having a range of life activities that help define identity, not just one, so that identity is not lost when one area of activity is released?

Thank you for your regular newsletters, which are easy to read and full of good, sensible advice.

Fiona, from Malvern, England (where the best water comes from!)