Be bilingual: the key to delaying dementia?

Be bilingual: the key to delaying dementia?

Background: With more and more cases of people diagnosed with any dementia, the research of ways to cure or at least retard the development of the condition has been one of the priorities of the neurological scientific community. One could ask, how can there be a link between fluently speaking two or more languages and retarding a condition such as dementia? As a result of previous research, bilingualism comes to the scene as a possible option to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia by up to 5 years. However, this phenomenon has only been observed in immigrant populations. The purpose of the study was to determine if there was a direct relationship between age and the onset of dementia and its subtypes in people who require the use of bilingualism every day.

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Methods: The experiment was carried out in a city of Hyderabad, India where most of the population speak at least three languages. Experts focused their research in subjects who fluently spoke Telugu, Dakkhini, Hindi, and English. For this study, experts selected participants from the list of patients from a specialist Memory Clinic of a university hospital in Hyderabad.

An evaluation phase was carried out before selecting the subjects. Through a collection of sufficient clinical and other personal information, researchers decided on 715 patients who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), vascular dementia (VaD), dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), and mixed dementia. However, 75 of them failed to provide enough information. Hence, only 648 patients participated in the study.

The native language of every speaker was noted as well as the number of words he or she knew. Slightly more than half of the patients were bilingual (60.3%), and of them, 26.2% spoke two idioms, 25% three languages, and 9.1% knew 4 or more languages. Nevertheless, patients were divided into two groups monolingual and bilingual. Both groups were also compared based on different aspects such as age, sex, age at onset of dementia, dementia subtype, education, family history of the condition, dementia severity, rural vs. urban living, among others.

Results: The results found by experts demonstrated that bilingualism could play an essential role in the delay in age of onset of all the studied dementia subtypes. First, the severity of dementia observed in monolingual patients was considerably higher than those who were bilingual. Also, the studies reflected that bilinguals were 4.5 years older when the first symptoms of dementia appeared (65.6 years in bilinguals versus 61.1 in monolinguals). The delay was most

noticeable within the three main subtypes of dementia: AD dementia, FTD and VaD where bilingualism delayed the appearance by 3 to 6 years.

Findings also confirmed that other variables such as sex, occupational

status, place of living, family history of dementia, among others did not have an explicit interaction with bilingualism. However, the association between education and age at onset of dementia indicated that for educated subjects first symptoms appear later in life than for illiterate patients. Finally, experts determined that there was no significant variation in the age of dementia onset between subjects who spoke 2, 3, 4 or more languages.

Implications: Even though researchers had already linked bilingualism to

the delay in the age of onset dementia, it is fascinating to reconfirm the fact that something as simple as learning another language could have such an impact. This study is also the first that demonstrates the retard in the appearance of symptoms in the most common subtypes of dementia. It is also interesting to note that the survey revealed that even if the group was selected from the same environment (as previous studies were conducted among immigrants) results showing a clear delay did not change. Education also played an important role in retarding the appearance of dementia’s symptoms. However, results did not show the same for bilinguals who knew more than two languages as there was no significant difference. Overall, this research is an excellent step in understanding the options that one could have against a disease like dementia.

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