Second Language Staves off Alzheimers

by Translation Guy on June 13, 2011

Bilinguals with Alzheimer’s do better than monoglots, according to Ellen Bialystok. “Using two languages regularly appears to rewire the brain, allowing bilingual people to make different kinds of problem-solving connections and better hold two different ideas on their minds at the same time.” This science is surprising to me, since my own anecdotal evidence after 20 years of working with bilinguals in the translation business is that many of my linguists have trouble holding onto even a single idea in their heads, but I guess empirically that’s still head-and-shoulders above the monoglots.

Bilingualism causes structural changes in the brain that appear to help bilinguals function better at a higher level even after Alzheimer’s disease starts to do its dirty work. Compared to Alzheimer’s patients who only spoke one language, bilingual Alzheimer’s patients showed symptoms five or six years later.

Bialystok, a psychologist at Toronto’s York University and the go-to gal on bilingualism’s effect on cognition, got 1000 words in the NYT recently in an interview by Claudia Dreifus:

“We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals. Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn’t have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.

“That evidence made us look at people who didn’t have normal cognitive function. In our next studies , we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.”

I think this is my wife’s secret. Since my in-laws are a bunch of demented idiots (who only read Japanese, so I can write freely), my wife is super paranoid that she is headed down the same path of senility. So on top of her bilingualism, she’s taken up the piano (Chopin is the sweetest sounding memory aid I can imagine) and recently asked me to encourage her to use her left hand instead of her right, to increase her learning activity. Which is a lot of fun, reminding someone not to use their right hand, since I’m sanctioned to nag my spouse, and with endless opportunity to do so. Findings to date? It seems to be working. She’s still better at finding my keys than I am. But what does that say about me? Forget it.


  1. Mr. Thug says:

    So I am Trilingual so I will never get Alzheimer’s Disease?


    Hurray for being Asian(Indian).

    • Ken says:

      It’s not that you won’t get it, Mr. Thug. It’s that you’ll have it longer when you do. Now where did I leave those keys? Repeat in three languages.

  2. SOG says:

    WOOT. Im not going to have Alzheimer’s. I speak French and English every day. But I speak more French than English. But I speak English with my parents and whenever I’m sick of French.

  3. This reminds me of a book I recently read called The Brain That Changes Itself, which focuses on neuroplasticity (our brain’s ability to adapt and “re-wire” even in adulthood). In the book he talks about the importance of keeping the brain active throughout our life, especially as we age, to fend off brain dysfunctions. Reading, doing puzzles, engaging the brain actively.

  4. Does speaking 4 languages help? Coz that’s what I can do lol.

  5. Tara Stark says:

    I speak both English and German natively. It has weird effects. Sometimes while speaking one, I will say something in the other because I am thinking of a word or saying and either don’t know or can’t remember the equivalent for the other language. Especially with German it’s hard as there are a lot more words that mean specific things while English has a lot of one size fits all. The fact that English is adopting quite a few German words is just proof of that.

    Another thing that will sometimes happen is that someone comes to talk to me and I reply back, without realising that I am talking in the other language.

    I’m often asked what language I think in. I have no answer for that, aside from when I’m writing or speaking, there doesn’t seem to be a clear language choice.

  6. Clawdaddy says:

    HAHA! It does not preclude Alzheimer’s, it just puts if off!

  7. Joshua Carr says:

    O.K. and if your a Polyglot?

  8. Kasia Dupler says:

    The brain is a muscle. If you don’t use it you lose it, but correlation is not causation. Learning another language is no guarantee.

  9. Nice to know that all of us translators are safe!

  10. Does pig latin count?

  11. Huh, a reason to learn Italian, and not just for hot Italian ass but to you know remember there number

  12. Ozzie says:

    I speak three languages (four if you count American as a language),
    so do I live forever? How boring.

  13. Somehow to me every “new” little thing people find can statistically lessen one’s risk of Alzheimer all falls under the same principle. Mentally and physically stimulating activity offsets the disease of sedentary lifestyles.

  14. Marietta says:

    I wonder if it has to do with mnemonics and actually memorizing the other language. A similar test was done on mnemonists and it also helped fight alzheimers. There are ways for people to learn languages freaky fast using the techniques. A man named Daniel Tammet learned norwegian (s/p) in less then a week (Ken, you’ve discussed this before) and thats supposed to be one of the hardest languages to learn. Granted hes a savant. Although I’m sure a regular person could do the same somewhat quick.

  15. Erin Finch says:

    I tried to learn French, German, and Japanese. Failed miserably each time.

  16. Anil Sharma says:

    This is interesting, but to understand a language is indeed a very long process. Translating a language is a fairly straightforward process but then understanding the language is what is difficult. Using translation services are easy to use and although accruate, by reading one translation you may think ‘now I understand the language’ but in reaslity you dont.
    Learning does sound like a good idea to keep the brain active and to ‘put off’ developing a condition such as alzheimer’s but it is a long process (albeit a very interesting one!)

    • Ken says:

      So does spell-check. As punishment for your spelling errors, (accurate translators don’t misspell accurate, Anil) I’ve hijacked all your links in your comment from your language service to mine. I hope you have learned a valuable lesson.

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