A Moment of Science

Being Multilingual May Help You Cope With Dementia

Are you bilingual or multilingual? Chances are it will help you cope with dementia.

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Photo: nicasaurusrex (Flickr)

Can you speak more than one language?

It takes a lot of mental power to speak more than one language. In fact, being multilingual may help people cope with dementia better than people who speak only one language.

Being Multilingual Is An Advantage

Scientists think that people who are multilingual have a highly developed sense of inhibitory or cognitive control that is, the ability to focus on one thing, then abruptly switch focus to something else.

That’s similar to how people who are multilingual have to mute one language when communicating in another. Several studies have shown that multilingual speakers are better at ignoring distracting or irrelevant information than people who speak only one language.

Coping With Dementia

The point is that the enhanced cognitive control that may accrue from speaking more than one language could help people better cope with the onset of dementia.

Other studies looking at memory clinic patients diagnosed with dementia showed that multilingual patients were, on average, four years older than patients who spoke only one language when they first began experiencing memory problems.

Continued Functioning

This doesn’t necessarily mean that dementia affects the brains of multilingual speakers later in life.

But it does imply that a lifetime’s experience of doing the mental work necessary to think and speak in more than one language helps multilingual speakers continue functioning for longer even as their brains began to deteriorate.

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  • http://twitter.com/Canis_bonus Canis bonus

    What a relief to hear positive news about multilingualism. We have quite a bind at the moment. I am a French-speaking Belgian who partly grew up in the UK. English gradually came to replace my native French as my more comfortable language. I then married a Dutchman, and we live in the Netherlands. Our fifteen month old son is starting to speak and I really don't know what to speak to him. I used to alternate one week French, one week English, but since I've stopped and switched entirely to English, his language skills have exploded (he is now 'only' bilingual Dutch/English). All of a sudden, it's like 'he gets it'. I would appreciate any thoughts, resources or advice you might have! Sorry for highjacking a comments form for such a specific question.

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