If your bilingual abilities stretch no further than being able to pronounce your restaurant order this Cinco de Mayo, you may want to consider the possible cognitive benefits of brushing up on foreign language skills.That’s the encouraging implication of a Canadian study recently published in Neurology, which found that being bilingual appeared to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by 5-6 years.

Researchers reviewed data from 211 Alzheimer’s patients, including their professional history, education, language skills as well as when symptoms of dementia began to appear. They found that the bilingual patients were diagnosed 4.3 years later and reported onset of symptoms 5.1 years later than monolingual patients. Women reaped the most benefit from bilingualism, which postponed onset of symptoms by 6 years! No existing drug or therapy has been able to yield such a dramatic result.

Interestingly, the brains of both the mono- and bilingual patients exhibited similar age-related deterioration — but speaking two or more languages seems to help develop coping mechanisms that help the brain function even when damaged or stressed. Bad at languages? Previous research has indicated that other kinds of “brain calisthenics” (e.g., playing an instrument, doing crosswords, etc.) may similarly contribute to this coping capacity, called “cognitive reserve.” To help protect against age-related memory decline, also try:

  • Increasing consumption of leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables.
  • Spicing up your diet with turmeric (the anchor ingredient of most curries).
  • Lacing up your walking shoes.
  • Increasing variety — not just intensity of exercise.
All of the above can help ward off obesity, which doubles your risk of developing dementia.
Published May 1, 2011