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Speaking two languages may delay onset of dementia

November 11, 2013

There are a wide variety of subjects that lure seniors back to the classroom during retirement.While some might want to build their knowledge based on history or literature, others may be more interested in improving their technological prowess. Although there are numerous benefits regardless of what route they choose, those who elect to learn a new language may be doing themselves the greatest favors. A new study from India is one of the largest yet to suggest that the ability to speak two languages is tied to a delayed onset of dementia.

An unknown mechanism
The study, published in the journal Neurology, followed nearly 650 people with dementia who visited a clinic in the Indian city of Hyderabad. Approximately half of the people who visited the clinic spoke at least two languages, and researchers found they tended to develop the initial symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss and confusion, about five years later than study subjects who only spoke one language. Researchers are unsure of exactly what causes these benefits, but they have a few ideas.

"We know from other studies that mental activity has a certain protective effect," co-author Thomas Bak, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh, told USA Today. "Bilingualism combines a lot of different mental activities. You have to switch sounds, concepts, grammatical structures, cultural concepts. It stimulates your brain all the time."

Mental engagement is key
Although the study suggests that being bilingual can prevent dementia, any sort of mental activity should be part of a healthy lifestyle for seniors, whether it's taking Spanish or French classes or completing the daily crossword puzzle. This way of thinking was backed up by recent research from Montreal's Concordia University that found that seniors who had mentally engaging hobbies, from gardening to socializing to traveling, often had better cognitive function than their peers who experienced less mental stimulation. That study, which relied on data from more than 330 people, sheds light on the importance of staying active upon leaving the workforce.

"Retirement usually occurs right around the time when normal age-related declines in cognitive function come to the fore," author Larry Baer said in a press release. "So it is important to understand what is happening to brainpower during this period and to identify risk factors for mental decline, as well as factors that will help protect against it."