The Unexpected Way You Might Be Able To Reduce Your Chances Of Developing Dementia

If you've ever thought about learning a second language, there are plenty of reasons to do so. The World Economic Forum points out that learning a new language can provide many benefits, including having an easier time navigating your way through a foreign country, both geographically and culturally. Studies indicate it might also improve your cognitive abilities or make you better at multi-tasking, they write.

Now, researchers at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia have found that there may be yet another reason for you sign up for that Spanish class that you've had your eye on: staving off the development of dementia later in life. One study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, reported that knowing another language — even if you aren't fluent — was linked to better performance on cognitive testing. A related report in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience further found that it may help in avoiding dementia as you grew older. Also, the better you are at speaking the language, the more protection it may provide, according to the report.

Being bilingual may protect from dementia as we age

The Alzheimer's Association says dementia is an umbrella term for diseases caused by abnormal changes in the brain. These changes affect people's ability to think in ways that impair their daily living and independent functioning. They also affect people's feelings, behaviors, and relationships. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 5.8 million people in the United States are living with dementia. Alzheimer's is the most common form, but there are other types as well.

In one study, a research team asked 63 people over the age of 60 who spoke at least two languages to take a cognitive test called the Flanker Task. This test was used to measure their reaction time and their ability to decipher patterns. These skills usually decline with age. They also completed a language proficiency questionnaire. When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that people who had spoken a second language for a longer time and reported themselves to be more fluent fared better on the test. They also noted that being proficient appeared to play a greater role than how long people had known the language.

In an additional review published by the same lead author in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, it was noted that being bilingual was also preventative for dementia, with the condition's development being delayed by between five and seven years. This study looked at three recent meta-analyses dealing with dementia and being bilingual.

Keeping our brains healthy and active helps too

The Daily Mail reported that the investigators were cautious in interpreting what their findings might mean for preventing dementia. They said that being bilingual is not a definitive way to ward off cognitive decline, with other factors like lifestyle and family history also playing a role. However, they believe that keeping your brain engaged and active — as is done when switching between different languages— can help with what is known as "cognitive reserve." Cognitive reserve refers to how resilient people are in maintaining their cognitive abilities as they age, as researcher Yaakov Stern PhD wrote for The Lancet Neurology (posted at the National Library of Medicine).

Writing for the Bright Focus Foundation, James M. Ellison, MD, MPH, of the Swank Center for Memory Care, suggests that early education, cognitive stimulation, and physical activity are important factors in early life that set us up for being resistant to cognitive decline later on. In addition, getting exercise and taking care of ourselves by eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and keeping our stress low can help. He notes that there are genetic factors that play a part as well, but lifestyle and how we use our brains are important factors that we can control.