30/03/2012 06:24 BST | Updated 30/05/2012 06:12 BST

Learning Another Language 'Could Protect Against Dementia'

Learning another language could help delay the onset of dementia by up to four years, academics claim.

Researchers from York University in Toronto, Canada, analysed hospital records of patients diagnosed with a variety of types of dementia and found that those who were bilingual throughout their lives delayed the onset of the disease by three to four years.

They wrote in the journal Trends In Cognitive Sciences: "In spite of being equivalent on a variety of cognitive and other factors, the bilinguals experienced onset and symptoms and were diagnosed approximately three to four years later than the monolinguals.

"Specifically, monolingual patients were diagnosed on average at age 75.4 years and bilinguals at age 78.6 years.”

But it’s not only those who are completely bilingual that could benefit from the findings. The researchers reported that any attempt at learning a second language was likely to be beneficial. However, the earlier the language is learned and the more often it is used, the better.

"If bilingualism is protective against some forms of dementia, then middle-aged people will want to know whether it is too late to learn another language, or whether their high-school French will count towards cognitive reserve," they said.

"A related question concerns the age of acquisition of a second language: is earlier better?

"The best answer at present is that early age of acquisition, overall fluency, frequency of use, levels of literacy and grammatical accuracy all contribute to the bilingual advantage, with no single factor being decisive.”

Dr Marie Janson of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: 
“We know there are several lifestyle factors – such as healthy eating, exercise and mental activity – that could help to reduce our risk of dementia. This review discusses the evidence that keeping our brains active by switching between different languages could help to resist some of the damage caused by dementia, delaying the onset of symptoms.

“More research is needed to tease apart the most beneficial aspects of bilingualism – whether it is the age we starting learning, how fluent we are or how much we use the language in everyday life. With 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia and this number expected to rise, it is vital to invest in research to understand more about how to prevent or delay the onset of this devastating condition.”

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