Most of us decide to learn another language because we are interested in using that language for some purpose, right? Maybe we want to travel, make friends, or apply for a new job (all of which, by the way, are great reasons to start learning a new language)!
New research says that maybe we should add another compelling reason to that list: fighting Alzheimers disease! Yes, that’s right. Who would have thought that learning another language might be the most effective means we have to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s? Well, that’s precisely what a meta study conducted by Iowa State University has found!
The study, conducted by Anderson, Hawrylewicz, and Grundy (citation and link below) found that, in addition to all the other benefits of being bilingual, it appears fluently speaking another language is enough to delay experiencing Alzheimer’s symptoms by an average of five years! The study indicates that knowing another language does not necessarily make someone less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, but it appears to enable the brain to resist developing the symptoms of the disease for years.
Grundy, one of the authors, indicates that learning another language (or doing anything that requires your brain to think of and implement a new solution to a task or problem) essentially pushes your brain to develop new connections and alternative mental pathways to accomplish a task or achieve a desired outcome.
This study could be game-changing in how the world thinks about dealing with Alzheimer’s. Treatment options for this disease are very limited (and super expensive) once it has become symptomatic – and the cost to house and care for those patients suffering from Alzheimer’s induced dementia is equally onerous. Since the disease is so widespread, it has created a massive burden on healthcare systems across the globe.
While we are a long way from understanding all of the mechanisms that impact or might prevent Alzheimer’s, this study is a bit of good news for the language learning community. It turns out that the mental exercise we enjoy while learning a new language might just be enough to keep our brains healthy in our twilight years!
Anderson, J.A.E., Hawrylewicz, K. & Grundy, J.G. Does bilingualism protect against dementia? A meta-analysis. Psychon Bull Rev 27, 952–965 (2020).