Speaking Several Languages Might Protect Memory

Study found those who spoke four or more were less likely to suffer cognitive impairment

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By Charnicia Huggins
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- The ability to speak several languages not only looks good on a resume when you're young, it may have neurological benefits well after you pass retirement age.

A new study finds that seniors who speak three, four or more languages may have a lower risk of impaired memory than their peers.

Most people already know the cultural advantages of learning foreign languages, but now it appears there are also health benefits to being able to speak in more than one tongue, said lead researcher Magali Perquin, of the Center for Health Studies from the Public Research Center for Health in Luxembourg.

"People who practice different languages might develop particular cognitive processes that may help them to be more resistant to brain aging and cognitive decline when getting old," Perquin added. "It might even provide additional motivation to learn new languages, which is quite interesting."

Perquin and colleagues studied hundreds of males and females who were randomly invited to participate in the MemoVie study, a long-term study of mental function in the elderly. The seniors, who were 73 years old on average and had completed about 12 years of formal education, underwent neurological and psychological examinations and were categorized as having normal mental function, impaired mental function or dementia. After excluding those with dementia, the researchers looked at the number of languages the seniors spoke currently or at some point in life to determine if any associations existed between multilingualism and cognitive impairment.

The investigators found that the more languages the seniors currently spoke, or had spoken previously, the better protected they were against experiencing memory loss.

The findings, released online Tuesday, are scheduled to be presented in April during the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in Honolulu.

All of the adults currently spoke or had spoken anywhere from two to seven languages, but 44 of the 230 study participants (19 percent) had impaired mental function.

Seniors who were fluent in three languages were nearly four times as likely as their bilingual peers to be protected against cognitive impairment, the researchers found. Those who spoke four or more languages were more than five times as likely as bilingual seniors to be protected against memory problems, according to the study authors.

The association remained true even after the researchers took into consideration age and years of education.

"We showed multilingualism protects from cognitive impairment and, because the earliest stage of Alzheimer's disease is the occurrence of cognitive impairment, it's probably not too audacious to think that multilingualism could delay or lower the risk of [Alzheimer's disease] onset," said Perquin.

The researchers were unable to tease out a difference between seniors with current, rather than prior, fluency in multiple languages, and were unable to say exactly why multilingualism is so important in reducing the risk of cognitive impairment.

"We still have so many things to learn about brain capacities," Perquin said.

One potential explanation, according to Dr. Richard Lipton, a neurologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, is the "'use it or lose it' theory of brain function," he said. "You have to use more of your brain to speak multiple languages."

"There's been a longstanding notion that engagement in cognitively stimulating activities protects against Alzheimer's disease," he added. "Speaking multiple languages is a form of cognitive stimulation."

Lipton said he views Perquin's findings in the context of his "crossword puzzle study." Formally known as the Einstein Aging Study, it found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities, like doing crossword puzzles, may protect against age-related mental decline.

It is unknown, however, whether fluency in multiple languages protects against mental decline or is simply a marker of potentially protective traits, like increased intelligence and superior ability, Lipton said, describing it as "sort of a chicken-and-egg problem."