News / Health

Speaking 2nd Language Could Delay Alzheimer's, Memory Loss

VOA journalists Sandra LeMaire (left) and Zulima Palacio might be better equipped to fight off the memory loss associated with aging because they speak more than one language.
VOA journalists Sandra LeMaire (left) and Zulima Palacio might be better equipped to fight off the memory loss associated with aging because they speak more than one language.

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Carol Pearson

If you speak more than one language, you have a better chance of staving off memory loss and, possibly, the mental and physical decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease. New research shows that even learning a new language later in life can delay the onset of dementia.

At the Voice of America, there are many people who speak one, two, three or more languages. Sandra LeMaire, on VOA's Web Desk, speaks four languages fluently.

"My first language is French," says LeMaire. "I was born in Haiti, so I grew up speaking French, and then at the age of five, we moved to New York City."

In addition to French, LeMaire's family also speaks Creole, English and Spanish - and she learned those languages as well.

Producer Zulima Palacio's native language is Spanish. She started speaking English in her early twenties. Her reporter's notebook reflects both languages.

"When I go, for example to a press conference, you will have to be bilingual to be able to read my notes. My brain instinctively takes notes in both languages," she says. "If it's shorter in English, I take it in Engilsh. If it is shorter in Spanish, I take it in Spanish."

A new study indicates that as they get older, Palacio and LeMaire will have advantages over their colleagues who speak only one language. People who speak more than one language are better able to stave off the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging. And if they develop Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, their brains will continue to function better than those of their monolingual friends. Those conclusions come from a recent study of 450 Alzheimer's patients.  

Psychologist Ellen Bialystok, of York University in Toronto, was the lead researcher. "We've been able to show that people who spend most of their lives actively using two languages are able to postpone the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease by four or five years beyond what we see in comparable monolingual patients."

According to Bialystok, the physical changes that Alzheimer's causes in the brain could be the same for both a monolingual patient and a bilingual patient. But the bilingual patient does not show the outward symptoms of the disease until much later on. Her research is now focusing on the structural differences in bilingual brains.

"It's possible that the bilingual mind is just better connected and better able to cope when there's a disease like Alzheimer's because it has a more robust set of mental activities, mental components."  

Another study shows even more advantage for someone who speaks multiple languages - such as VOA correspondent Ravi Khana, who learned five languages as a child.

"In India, your neighbor is a Bangla, your next door neighbor maybe is a Punjabi and your other neighbor may be somebody else," says Khana. "Kids play together and they talk in their languages, and so you are exposed right away when you come out of your house to other languages."

In a study from Luxembourg, people who spoke three or more languages were less likely to have memory problems as they aged, compared to those who were bilingual.  And even if you only speak one language now, Bialystok says learning a new language can help stave off the effects of dementia, even if you never speak it like a native.

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