Would you learn a new language if it would help your health?

bilingual, french, english, dementiaWould you learn a new language if it would help your health? You may have heard that bilingual children actually have more brainpower than kids who grow up speaking only one language. (Learn more about the cognitive advantages that bilingual kids have here.)

But could speaking multiple languages help you at the other end of life as well? Neuroscientists now say yes. Bilingualism appears to protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In a recent study, Dr. Ellen Bialystok at York University found that in bilingual patients with dementia, the disease had a later onset than in monolingual patients. On average, being bilingual delayed the disease by four to five years.

Why does being bilingual protect against dementia? Regularly speaking two languages strengthens different parts of the brain. This exercise helps what neuroscientists call “executive control,” which refers to complex cognitive skills like planning, working memory, mental flexibility, and many other important functions. These skills are the first to disappear as we age, but some activities (like eating well, exercising regularly, and doing word puzzles) have been shown to stave off mental decline in old age. Apparently, being bilingual has a similar impact.

Does your high school French class count? Sadly no. How often you speak a second language, and how well you know it, both influence to what degree being bilingual can protect against dementia. Other variables, like when a patient learned the second language, have not been examined.

Are you more likely to learn another language because it has positive health impact?