Foreign Languages VS Dementia


Can foreign languages be part of the answer to our century’s fight against dementia?


With the number of elderly population around the world growing, the incidence rate of age related cognitive decline, such as dementias is leveling off, forecasted to triple by 2050. According to the World Health Organization, dementia affects an estimated 47.5 million people worldwide. All types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease making up approximately 60-70% of diagnosed cases, destroy brain network and consciousness and exert overwhelmingly negative effect on caregivers and families. Despite research into pharmaceutical approaches there is still no cure for Alzheimer or dementia. With numerous drugs produced by pharmaceutical industry failing to fully cure the disease the key is prevention and maintaining brain health.

According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, dedicated to causes, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and cure of disease, regularly challenging your brain and staying mentally active can help protect your brain health as we grow older thus lowering risk of dementia onset. Research findings certify that mental activity helps to build cognitive reserve, namely your brain’s ability to resist the damage associated to Alzheimer’s disease progression. Cognitive reserve is thought to explain why some people’s brains are more resilient to damage than others, and there is increasing evidence that being bilingual throughout life could increase your cognitive reserve. A number of factors posited to increase cognitive reserve are offered through physically and mentally active lifestyles, among which, bilingualism, has been found to activate regions across the entire brain thus being a strong candidate to increase cognitive reserve and delay the age of onset of disease symptoms in elderly patients.

Text by: Angeliki Deligianni-Georgakas

Since the turn of the 21th century till now a number of research studies conducted by distinguished researchers in University Departments such as Psychology, Linguistics, Neurology, have been testing the theory that bilingualism can increase cognitive reserve and thus delay dementia onset. There is a growing body of evidence showing that bilinguals operate at a higher level of brain functioning because of their cognitive reserve which seems to be strengthened through second language learning and use. This implies that these individuals will be more resilient in dealing with neurodegeneration than monolinguals.

It stems that bilingualism appears to be a source of cognitive reserve that postpones appearance of Alzheimer’s dementia symptoms by 4-5 years. It evokes cognitive stimulation which in its turn strengthens the connections between neurons and promotes healthy cognitive aging. By increasing the brain activity required to speak two languages bilingualism offers a type of brain work out scheme.

In order to respond to the demanding processing of different language elements such as semantics, phonology, syntax and grammar human brain has to work hard forming new neural connections or/and expanding the existing ones. This means that the brain of bilinguals has the ability to form new neural pathways in response to different language stimuli and experiences and regenerate as these new pathways can function when the old ones are dying because of degenerative diseases such as dementia.  It is in this way that the brain reorganizes and rewires itself.  

However, it should be noted that the aforementioned precious process occurs only when at least two language systems are used on a daily basis. Recent studies have shown that when we regularly switch from one language to another, even when we use one language alone, both languages are active. The parallel activation of two languages means that the bilingual functions as a mental juggler and juggling two or more languages makes a precious brain fitness program that exercises the brain of the elderly.

The bottom line is that research findings lend weight to the theory that keeping the brain fit through foreign language learning/speaking enriches our cognitive reserve, improves cognitive functioning and this can postpone appearance of Alzheimer-Dementia symptoms and make our brain more resilient to damages caused by the disease.  The good thing is that all scientific research so far advocates it is never too late to learn a foreign language because the benefits of bilingualism occur regardless of the age of learning. 

In the light of the above knowledge there is a powerful implication for Local Self Government Organizations with a powerful role in the prevention and management of chronic and degenerative diseases, from the second half of the twentieth century and later. Research findings point to the need for the implementation of specially organized pioneering  foreign language courses taking  into serious consideration that foreign language methodology with process-oriented, person-centered and problem-solving approaches are  ideal in serving mental empowerment of the elderly citizens. To this end private language schools as well as volunteer foreign language teachers with their expertise knowledge would be invited to contribute to the welfare of local community.