More than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, one of many types of dementia that particularly affect the aging population. Those suffering from Alzheimer’s typically exhibit a gradual loss of memory, confusion and decreasing communication skills. It is a cruel disease for the afflicted individual and a constant struggle for friends and family.
What’s more, the economic and societal effects of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can be devastating. As the number of Americans suffering from these disorders grows—the number of Alzheimer’s patients is expected to triple by 2050—so will the associated costs for our already overburdened healthcare system.
But Alzheimer’s is not an inevitable result of aging. While scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes the disease, they have identified a number of factors that can reduce your risk of getting it. Exercising regularly, eating well and staying mentally active can help keep Alzheimer’s away. And what better way to keep yourself mentally active than learning a second language?
In fact, there is ample scientific evidence that speaking another language significantly delays dementia. A 2011 Canadian study found that bilingual people developed Alzheimer’s symptoms four to five years later than people who spoke only one language. Although the study focused on people who had been bilingual their whole lives, scientists say that even people who tackle a new language later in life stand to gain. When it comes to exercising the brain by learning another language, “the more the better—and every little bit helps,” said Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto and one of the authors of the study.
A recent study showed that speaking a second language not only benefits the brain, but also that this benefit is independent of education or income. Examining hundreds of Indian patients diagnosed with dementia, researchers found that on average, patients who spoke more than one language began to develop symptoms 4.5 years later than those who spoke only one language. Furthermore, bilingual patients developed dementia later even if they couldn’t read or write.
Studying a foreign language is like a thorough workout for the brain. Learning vocabulary exercises your memory and figuring out what expressions to use in different contexts tests your reasoning and decision making skills. And once you’re speaking the language, having to switch between it and your native language improves what’s known as your brain’s “executive function,” that is, its ability to plan and prioritize.
A second language is an invaluable asset for numerous reasons. It opens the door to new people, experiences and cultures, as well as improved career opportunities in an increasingly globalized job market. And now, it turns out, a second language also has clear, substantial benefits for the brain. It’s never too late to start learning.
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