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Speaking 2 languages can help keep dementia at bay

November 06, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • Retired physician David Hilfiker talks about his life with Alzheimer's at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Researchers say speaking two languages is associated with later onset of dementia.
Retired physician David Hilfiker talks about his life with Alzheimer's… (Associated Press )

People who spoke two languages developed dementia 4 1/2 years later than those who spoke just one -- even in people who were illiterate, said scientists who reviewed the records of hundreds of dementia patients.

The study is the largest to date to document the delay of dementia in bilingual people and the first to suggest that education level alone can’t explain the difference, the researchers said. The researchers also controlled their results for age, sex, occupation and rural versus urban living.

The researchers reviewed the case histories of 648 people with dementia; 391 of them were bilingual. The people lived in Hyderabad, India -- interesting because much previous work in this area has been with immigrants, who bring a native language to a new culture. Most people in Hyderabad are at least bilingual. They are exposed to Telugu and Dakhini languages in informal contexts, such as home, and to Hindi and English in school and other formal contexts.

Previous research has suggested that switching from one language to another leads to better development of executive function abilities and of tasks requiring attention.

The researchers found that a person didn’t get additional advantage by speaking three or more languages.

The advantages -- dementia onset at 61.1 years of age for monolingual people, 65.6 for bilingual people -- applied to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as to other main types of dementia: frontotemporal dementia and vascular dementia.

The results were published online Wednesday in the journal Neurology.


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