How learning a third language can impact the development of dementia

Dementia is a complex topic as it affects each person differently. When many people hear the term dementia, they instantly think “not me” but the worldwide prevalence of dementia currently approximates 35.6 million people, a figure set to rise to 65.7 million by 2030 and (by doubling every 20 years) to 115.4 million by 2050. Unfortunately there is no cure for this heartbreaking disease, so the best thing one can do is look into preventative measures to delay a dementia diagnosis. Keeping your mind stimulated as much as you can through language is one way to do this.

According to medical researchers, learning a second language can cause various forms of dementia to appear around five years later compared to people who know only one language. Multiple studies highlighting the link between multilingualism and dementia have confirmed a similar figure of five years as well. There are many theories as to why this actually works with the most common being the permanent switching and suppressing of one language to another offers individuals constant brain training.

Learning a 3rd language and dementia

So what about learning a third language? Those who are trilingual carry even higher levels of cognitive frequency than those who are bilingual, according to Schroeder & Marian. Their study states that having to adapt to learning more words through carrying a larger database in the brain, while learning a new language, results in a bigger supply in memory. This will undoubtedly help toward any future cases of dementia that a person could develop, since a large part of dementia affects the memory in many cases.

Their research goes on to suggest a gradual intake of learning as opposed to flooding the brain with too much new information at once. Also, learning a second language initially and then carrying on to learn a third language later will keep the mental processes active for a longer period of time. This will prove to be very effective in delaying the onset of dementia.

Carol Brayne, the world’s leading researcher on dementia and the public health of brain ageing, writes about how a substandard education in language development is one of seven main risk factors to developing Alzheimer’s disease. The other risk factors include obesity, diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, depression and not enough physical activity.

Learning more than one language allows for more inhibition (i.e disregarding irrelevant data), increasing monitoring skills (i.e focusing on the important information one needs to process), using switching techniques (i.e moving from the irrelevant language to the relevant language in use). These uses all positively affect the frontal lobe in the brain which directly correlates to the intake and retention of memory. Therefore we can once again confirm that language acquisition is directly linked to memory. These frontal lobe workings allow the user to access more hard-to-reach memories in older adults compared to those with dementia who have a deterioration in their frontal lobe processes and memory.

Based on the research conducted, there is a definite correlation between multilingualism and delayed cases of dementia. Most cases use the figure of around five years, but each person’s cognitive ability is inherently unique. Contextual factors also come into play such as cultural and economic statuses. However it is safe to say that learning a second and third language in relation to delaying dementia will help more often than not.

What does this mean for you?

The first thing you should know is that it is never too late. Learning a second or third language at any age can seem like a challenge but it can be a fun experience too. It need not be expensive either, as there are hundreds of websites and videos available online that offer language courses for free. It can also be turned into something engaging and social when done with a group of friends. We encourage you to look for ways to train your brain and learning a second or third language may be an option worth considering.

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Since 2011, the Livewell Group has been at the forefront of dementia and Alzheimer’s care in South Africa. We are motivated by a personal and heartfelt concern for the dignity and care of our elders and our efforts continue to be encouraged by the strong market need for specialised individual care.

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