Mirit Hoffman
Focusing on the elderly and their families

The Connection between Languages and Dementia

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Both my grandmothers (OBM) spoke many languages. One knew Romanian, Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew and the other, in addition to the above, spoke German and Czech.

As a child, I used to admire the pile of books in the various languages that my grandmother would receive from her sister abroad. The languages were foreign to me and sounded both magical and exotic.

My parents used to talk to their parents in Hungarian most of the time and so it turned out that as I grew up I started to understand the language, and to the delight of my grandparents I could occasionally say a whole sentence in Hungarian. Needless to say, my parents soon realized that if they wanted to speak to each other in a language I did not understand, they had to start learning a new one…

Languages are used to convey thoughts, identity, knowledge, and feelings. Mastering more than one language provides a gateway to other cultures, and according to a team of researchers led by scientists from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), actively using them also brings neurological benefits and protects people from cognitive impairment associated with aging, such as Dementia.

Dementia is a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia.

The prevalence of dementia in countries where more than one language is spoken is 50 percent lower than in those regions where the population uses only one language to communicate,” said researcher Marco Calabria, one of the professors heading the research in Spain.

However, knowing two languages but speaking only one is not enough to delay Dementia. “We saw that the people with a higher degree of bilingualism received a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment later than those who were passive bilinguals,” said Calabria. She recommends considering speaking two languages and regularly switching from one to the other as a lifelong training exercise for the brain.

Calabria adds, “…When something is not functioning well due to the disease, thanks to the fact that it is bilingual, the brain has efficient alternative systems for resolving the problem. We have seen that the more you use multiple languages and the better your language skills, the more neuroprotective advantage you have. In fact, active bilingualism is an important predictor of delay in the onset of symptoms of mild cognitive impairment—a preclinical phase of Alzheimer’s disease—because it contributes to cognitive reserve.”

Reports from Toronto and Hyderabad showed a significant effect in those who speak two or more languages in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 5 years. Whereas, the Montreal study showed a significant protective effect for those who speak at least four languages, and a protective effect in immigrants who speak at least two languages. Although there were differences in results across the studies, a common theme was the significant effect of language use as one of the factors in determining the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Another study examined a group of Roman Catholic nuns, aiming to find out how the risk of dementia changed based on their language abilities.

The researchers followed 325 nuns at the Sisters of Notre Dame, as part of a larger study known as the Nun Study. The results showed that of the nuns who spoke four or more languages, only six percent developed dementia. Meanwhile, 31 percent of nuns who spoke only one language developed dementia.

“Language is a complex ability of the human brain, and switching between different languages takes cognitive flexibility,” says Suzanne Tyas, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo and lead author of the study.

Now, researchers want to see whether bilingualism is also beneficial for other diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

All things considered, it could definitely be worth trying to master two languages and regularly switch from one to the other as it provides a lifelong training of the brain.

In addition, it can be a great activity to do with the young grandchildren. Teaching them another language as a way to connect and thus teach them their grandparents’ cultural heritage can be an amazing bonding experience.

So which language will you start teaching your grandchildren today?

About the Author
Mirit is a mother of three treasures and an attorney since 1996 who advises on all aspects of elder law. This includes Guardianship issues, and inter-generational transfer planning for individuals including preparing Wills, Trusts and Enduring Powers of Attorney's. She gives lectures on these important topics throughout the country, and has a column on the website Kipa discussing the relationship between grown up children and their elderly parents (a.k.a the "Sandwich Generation"). Coming from a strong background of U.S. and Israeli Taxation, Mirit has a holistic approach to issues concerning both jurisdictions and look at the bigger picture when dealing with concerns that involve dual citizenship. Currently her private practice is in Beit Shemesh.
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