Being Bilingual May Boost Brain Health

By Semko, Laura 
March 21, 2017
January 2014

Being Bilingual May Boost Brain Health

Dementia is a growing threat to more Americans. In fact, experts predict that cases of Alzheimer's disease—the most common type of dementia—will triple by 2050. An aging population partly accounts for this uptick.

You can't avoid growing older. But you may be able to hold off dementia in other ways. A recent study suggests one tactic may be learning to speak a second language.


Benefits of being bilingual

In the journal Neurology, researchers in India reviewed the health records of nearly 650 older adults with dementia. They specifically focused on when study participants were diagnosed with the condition. They then looked at the number of languages each person spoke. Sixty percent of the people were bilingual.

From their review, investigators found a link between dementia and bilingualism. Those who spoke more than one language were diagnosed with dementia at an older age—an average of 4.5 years later. This delay remained even after factoring in other variables. Those included education level, occupation, sex, and rural or urban residence.

What might explain this connection? Experts suspect speaking multiple languages keeps your brain healthy longer. It prompts it to work harder. Your brain must actively switch between languages. In turn, that may hone your cognitive abilities.

More ways to stay sharp

Based on recent research, more experts are beginning to think dementia may develop over a person's lifetime—not just in older age. To some extent, its cause is genetic. But you may be able to prevent it like you do other conditions, such as heart disease. What's more, you are more likely to develop dementia if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. Preventing or controlling these conditions is one way you might avoid dementia later in life.

You can also stay sharp by following these steps:

  • Exercise regularly. It prevents not only dementia but also many diseases linked to it. Physical activity stimulates blood flow throughout the body, including your brain. It also spurs the growth of new brain cells.

  • Fill up on fruits and vegetables. Many of these foods contain high levels of antioxidants, such as beta carotene and vitamin C. Antioxidants may protect brain cells from damage.

  • Stay socially active. Spending time with family and friends can stave off stress. Too much stress can harm connections between brain cells.

  • Stretch your mind often. Mental activities—such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, and learning a second language—may fortify brain cells. They may also spark the growth of new nerve cells.

Dementia refers to several similar diseases that impair brain function. These diseases can erode memory, problem solving, and language skills. They may also cause personality and behavioral changes. If you are concerned that you or a loved may have dementia, click here to read about symptoms and next steps. 

Online resources

Alzheimer’s Association – What Is Dementia?

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke – Dementia Information Page


March 21, 2017


Bilingualism Delays Age at Onset of Dementia, Independent of Education and Immigration Status. S. Alladi, et al. Neurology. 2013;81(22):1938-44., Cognitive Health Begins at Conception: Addressing Dementia as a Lifelong and Preventable Condition. J. Barnett, V. Hachinski, and A. Blackwell. BMC Medicine. 2013;11(1):1-6.

Reviewed By:  

Foster, Sara, RN, MPH