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Biotech Science

Bilingualism Delays Onset of Dementia 472

Posted by kdawson
from the brain-exercise dept.
Dee writes with word of a Canadian study indicating that lifelong bilingualism delays the onset of dementia by 4 years. The scientists were reportedly "dazzled" by the results. From the article: "The researchers determined that the mean age of onset of dementia symptoms in the monolingual group was 71.4 years, while the bilingual group was 75.5 years. This difference remained even after considering the possible effect of cultural differences, immigration, formal education, employment and even gender as influencers in the results. "
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Bilingualism Delays Onset of Dementia

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  • Wow (Score:5, Funny)

    by wbean (222522) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:38AM (#17624392)
    Wow, does that include Fortan and Cobal? (Couldn't be C# because it requires lifelong fluency.)
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by malsdavis (542216)
      This isn't the first report to note mental health benefits from knowing another language, there have been many studies done on the matter, I remember recently reading a report which showed bilingualism (along with ambidexterity among other things) helps prevent/delay Alzheimers.

      While on the face of it, the various studies would seem to imply that programming languages help in this way, I doubt they are quite as beneficial as a natural language due (among other things) to the comparatively minuscule vocabula
      • by bob65 (590395)
        Not sure if being a nerd automatically implies higher than average brain usage though.
      • by arodland (127775)
        Well if size of vocabulary and available complexity are the deciding factors, then Perl should be the best at keeping you from going out of your mind :)
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by SatanicPuppy (611928) *
        I doubt it. A lot of the studies on dementia have boiled down to: if your brain is more flexible, you develop symptoms much more slowly. People with more education tend to exhibit symptoms much more slowly, people who know extra languages exhibit symptoms much more slowly.

        What it boils down to is, if your brain is wired to do things in more than one way, you're more likely to be able to cope for longer when dementia starts throwing up road blocks. So, in that sense, I'd expect programming skills to be usefu
  • Cause or effect? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by kestasjk (933987) * on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:38AM (#17624396) Homepage
    Does learning another language make you less susceptible to dementia, or does being the sort of person who learns another language mean that you already were less susceptible?

    It would be interesting to compare the dementia rates in bilingual people in unilingual(?) cultures and bilingual people in bilingual cultures, but it looks like this study was limited to a couple of hundred people at a single mental health clinic.
    • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:57AM (#17624564) Homepage

      Does learning another language make you less susceptible to dementia, or does being the sort of person who learns another language mean that you already were less susceptible?

      The majority of the world is bilingual or multilingual. Especially in the countries refered to as Third World, people are forced to pick up at least one second language in childhood, and often continue learning languages throughout life. John Edward's Multilingualism [amazon.com] (New York: Penguin, 1996) is an eye-opening introduction to the field. It seems really strange now to hear well-off Americans complain that learning languages is "too hard" and requires special talent, when one can plainly see that any poor and uneducated peasant does it succesfully and without complaint.

      So when you say "being the sort of person who learns another language", I hope you aren't suggesting that only language nerds with special brains do so. Multilingualism is a general human phenomenon, it's people in the West who are usual.

      • Re:Cause or effect? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by metlin (258108) * on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @01:24AM (#17624778) Journal
        Actually, born and having spent my formative years in India, I can attest to this.

        While growing up, I lived in a few states, which entailed not only learning to speak the local language, but also read and write the said language. The good news is that once you've gotten the hang of it, it's not particularly hard.

        Usually, folks learn the language of the state they are in, they learn Hindi (the national language) and of course English since it is the language of education and commerce, owing to the fact that we were a British colony.

        End result? I am quite conversant in reading and writing several languages (speak 5 and read/write 4 - of course, I can read serious literature in only three of these languages). And do note that when I mean different languages, I mean languages - not dialects (I have noticed that a lot of folks tend to mistake all Indian languages as being dialects - they are not, and depending on which part of the country the language originated, they even have different linguistic roots).

        I have also found that having learnt the skills for picking up languages as a child, it is a lot easier for me to learn a new language than it is for most people who've not had such an opportunity.

        A most equitable bargain, I'd say.
      • by kestasjk (933987) *

        So when you say "being the sort of person who learns another language", I hope you aren't suggesting that only language nerds with special brains do so. Multilingualism is a general human phenomenon, it's people in the West who are usual.

        When I said "does being the sort of person who learns another language mean that you already were less susceptible?" I should have said "does being the sort of person who learns another language in a unilingual culture mean that you already were less susceptible?".

        You'r

      • It seems really strange now to hear well-off Americans complain that learning languages is "too hard" and requires special talent, when one can plainly see that any poor and uneducated peasant does it succesfully and without complaint.

        To be fair, most of the bilinguals you refer to learned their second language very early in age. There is an enormous amount of research that shows that it is much easier to acquire the syntax and phonology of a foreign language the earlier in life you begin learning it. The
      • If you mean West as in north-west of the Atlantic ocean, sure.

        But in Europa, pretty much everyone speaks at least 2 languages, and learning a 3rd in high-school is mandatory in most countries. Sure, not everyone learns the 3rd one well... But monolingualism is pretty rare here.

        Hell, I'm on my 5th language and I've never been any good at learning them.
      • Re:Cause or effect? (Score:4, Informative)

        by Monkelectric (546685) <<slashdot> <at> <monkelectric.com>> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @04:10AM (#17625838)
        It seems really strange now to hear well-off Americans complain that learning languages is "too hard" and requires special talent

        Learn some neurology then. The brain looses its plasticity for languages after the age of about 14. It *IS* extremely difficult to acquire a language after that age -- and if you do it is actually stored in a physically different location in your brain than your primary language.

        This is the same reason that people who don't learn to read after a certain age almost *NEVER* learn to read.

        The human brain has windows during which it is most receptive to acquiring new abilities. After those windows expire it is very difficult and in some cases impossible to acquire those abilities.

        So blame the American educational system. Most language courses are offered at the freshman level of high school -- about the age of 15.

    • by NotQuiteReal (608241) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:59AM (#17624580) Journal
      Be confused with multilingual voices in your head for much of your life... or just a concentrated dose for the last four years.
    • I think that it has more to do with using more of your brain. Kids do better learning 2nd, 3rd, or other languages...whether they are spoken or otherwise. You can include maths and music. It's more about stretching your brain's abilities. If you stretch earlier, you promote more pathways and therefore help prevent problems in the future. There probably is still a genetic aspect for dementia of all types but, the more you expand, the less or later the impact.
    • by svunt (916464)
      Effect. "Lifelong bilingualism" specifically precludes the intellectually curious & agile. Lifelong bilinguals are generally people raised in a bilingual home, so the children of immigrants, residents of polylingual societies, etc. People smart enough to want to learn another language when they're infants would have to be a teensy bit rare, I'd guess.
  • 4 years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TodMinuit (1026042) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {tiunimdot}> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:40AM (#17624404)
    And how long does it take for me to become (and stay) bilingual? Is there a net gain, or would my time be better spent elsewhere?
    • Re:4 years? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Max Romantschuk (132276) <max@romantschuk.fi> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @01:15AM (#17624700) Homepage
      And how long does it take for me to become (and stay) bilingual? Is there a net gain, or would my time be better spent elsewhere?


      Aside from the obvious benefits of simply broadening your perspective, learning a new language takes anywhere from 1 to 10 years. (I'm pretty much trilingual with Swedish, Finnish and English, know French pretty well, and some German.) Anybody can do it in one year if placed somewhere where you simply can't speak anything else. If you don't spend a lot of time, on the other hand, it'll take a lot longer. You'll also lose an extra language pertty quickly unless you use it regularly for a decent number of years.

      Then there's the question of what qualifies as bilingual. If you ask me it's the ability to express your thoughts equally and effortlessly in both languages. Otherwise you're just good at another language.

      It's interesting to note that if you're bilingual from age 0 and up it takes a little longer to learn to speak. It's also very important that one parent speaks one language to the kids, and vice versa. Otherwise they'll have a hard time determining what's what. (Our kids are Swedish/Finnish bilingual.)
  • Great (Score:3, Funny)

    by Frogbert (589961) <frogbertNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:41AM (#17624414)
    I can understand English and whatever language New Zealanders speak, do I count as bilingual?


    :P
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      whatever language New Zealanders speak

      It should, because it certainly isn't english.

      anklebiter: toddler, kids
      home and hosed: safe, completed successfully
      corker: very good
      get off the grass: exclamation of disbelief; equivalent to "stop pulling my leg" and "no way"
      Good on ya, mate!: congratulations
      skiting: bragging
      Wally: incompetent person, loser (my name's Wally, you insensitive clod!)
      and many more [nz.com].

    • by strider44 (650833)
      diponds... ef yow er relly god et et thin meybe.
  • Were all of the languages the same, or was this a general trend? Like, if you spoke both German and, say, Japanese, would you have a slightly longer or shorter shelf life than, say, Spanish and Portuguese?
    • by Rie Beam (632299)
      Okay, it might help to actually read the article.

      "Of that group, 91 were monolingual and 93 were bilingual. The bilinguals included speakers of 25 different languages, the most prevalent being Polish, Yiddish, German, Romanian and Hungarian."

      But the question still stands -- was this a general trend or were certain languages "healthier"?
      • by CRCulver (715279)

        But the question still stands -- was this a general trend or were certain languages "healthier"?

        Modern linguistics holds that ultimately there are no significant differences between languages. Since all languages are just expressions of the same deep structure, it is impossible for one to be healthier than another.

        • Modern linguistics holds that ultimately there are no significant differences between languages. Since all languages are just expressions of the same deep structure, it is impossible for one to be healthier than another.

          PC science aside, it's not "impossible" for one language to form significantly different brain paths in its speakers than another. Just like there are clear genetic differences between Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and between Men and Women.

          The first thing I'd wonder if the study missed isn
    • And does this hold only for verbal languages? What about music?
      • by Dun Malg (230075)

        And does this hold only for verbal languages? What about music?
        If you can't say "which way to the bathroom" in it, it's not a language.
        Music is something else entirely.
  • Does knowing a programming language (or two) help? This wasn't addressed in the article, of course, but I'm curious. Also, I wonder if the ability to read musical notation would have the same (or some) effect.

    k.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ClamIAm (926466)
      My opinion is that programming languages and musical notation (I also read these) are basically different ways of writing mathematical-type expressions. So you're basically learning different ways to write down logic and relationships between abstract things. Natural language is in some ways similar, but there's the added human elements like emotion and nuance.

      As for benefits, I certainly believe that knowing programming languages or any kind of abstract notation helps a person understand other abstract n
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Knutsi (959723)
      This will be guesswork on my behalf (not yet a doctor), but if I was to make an uneducated guess as to what causes this, i would suggest it is the constant increased level of activity in the brain of a multilingual person. It makes sence, that you have to engage larger patterns of knowledge when navigating between languages. If you learn a thing in one language, you also learn it in a second. If you know 10.000 words in two languages, I'm quite sure this accounts for quite a bit of added activity in the
  • Lesse: C, Basic, Fortran, Algol, perl, ......

    Et un peu de Francais.

    • by Cyberax (705495)
      Da chto vi govorite? (Sorry, Slashdot doesn't support Unicode).
    • by bob65 (590395)
      If un peu de Francais counts, then shouldn't all Canadians be safer from dementia (compared to e.g. Americans), considering that French is mandatory through grade school and high school? :P And I guess Quebecers should be even safer, considering that they're actually fluent in both English and French.
  • by pembo13 (770295) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:43AM (#17624448) Homepage
    Some people think bilingualism is something for 3rd world countries. Of course I've only heard this sentiment expressed in the USA.
    • by The MAZZTer (911996) <<megazzt> <at> <gmail.com>> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:49AM (#17624490) Homepage
      I'm seeing more and more Spanish-translated stuff popping up in the US, and not just near the southern border either...
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        It's not just the US. Here in the UK We're getting shitty cartoons where half the stuff is in Mexican as well. I've never even seen a Mexican and yet for some reason it's a useful language for British people to know..
    • Those kinds of people just get frustrated that immmigrants don't magically know English upon entering the United States. I wish they'd imagine what it would be like if they went to live in another country with a different language. People might assume that you're stupid, because you can't speak their language. You might naturally gravitate towards other Americans, because they could understand you and help you. Oh, and English is a really hard language to learn. It's full of silly rules that make no sense.
      • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @01:09AM (#17624656) Homepage

        Those kinds of people just get frustrated that immmigrants don't magically know English upon entering the United States. I wish they'd imagine what it would be like if they went to live in another country with a different language.

        I think the frustration is not that people don't immediately learn English--even the most vocal opponents of Mexican immigration I've encountered understand that English is difficult--but rather that some immigrants don't even seem to try to learn. For when large areas of major cities now have Spanish-language billboards, the locals only know the culture they see on Univision and miss out on traditional American references, and there's not even a need for one living there to learn English, then there's understandably a fear of balkanization. Personally speaking, however, I dig Latino immigrants, and when I used to live in the U.S. I spent a lot of time in such neighbourhoods.

        It's full of silly rules that make no sense. Even people who learn it at a young age and speak it their whole lives have trouble with it.

        Native speakers automatically speak perfectly correct English, since correct English is determined by how native speakers speak. You are thinking that people speak incorrectly just because they don't mold their speech to artificial proscriptivist norms, but this is antiquated reasoning from the era when all languages had to be just like Latin (no split infinitives, prepositions at end of clause, etc.). Linguistics has been a purely descriptivist field for nearly a century now, but it's taking a long time for this to filter down to the public, who still get riled up if you show that there's nothing wrong with, say, African American Vernacular English.

        • by metlin (258108) *
          To a great extent, this is a problem of social perception.

          For instance, if someone were to speak the Queen's English with a crisp Standard RP, I would be more likely to listen to them for two reasons - one, I would understand them better and two, I would assume that someone who takes the pains to speak a particular language in the proper vernacular is, for want of a better word, sophisticated (or at the very least educated).

          On the other hand, while there is an African American Vernacular, you do not see it
          • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @01:47AM (#17624956) Homepage

            Combined with the fact that a lot of the world learns English from proscriptivist norms, it is not surprising. And secondly, I might be wrong, but it seems to me that it is only in the US that descriptivist vernaculars take over proscriptivist vernaculars (for English, at least).

            Prescriptivism is dying in England, as well. RP is pretty much dead, and what passes for RP now among the elderly has marked differences from the standard set down a century ago. It's replacement as the standard English accent, Estuary English, is learnt more through osmosis just by living in the area than by rigorous schooling and hearing that this is the "right way to speak". Nevermind that in some former British colonies, such as Nigeria and India, the masses learning English nowadays are taking it in crazy directions that the British upper classes who brought the language there could have never imagined.

      • by nelsonal (549144)
        It's technically a really easy language to learn (almost everyone who knows even a small amount of English is understandable), but it is tremendously difficult to master (as the grammar Nazi's show us very frequently).
      • by Gryle (933382)
        I'm not expecting magical fluency upon entry to the US, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask an immigrant to make an attempt to learn English. If you're going to live somewhere, it's just good manners to try and learn the native language, even if you never become proficient.

        As a side note, a true story: I live in an area of Texas where a small but significant amount of the population speaks Spanish as a primary language. One day a customer who spoke only Spanish came into my workplace. While not flu
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Gothmolly (148874)
      While your comment is an obvious troll, I'll bite. Americans assume that you don't need to be bilingual simply because if you speak English, you DONT need to be bilingual. You can travel in the entire UK Commonwealth, the US, most of western Europe and Central America, and get by with English. It's the language of the Internet, it's the language of business. A German friend works for a Japanese country (in Germany) - what do they all speak? English. It's not the US' fault that it speaks one of the wor
    • I'm so jealous of my friends from other countries. Language education in the U.S. is so screwed up: We don't start kids until it's far too late to learn to speak without an accent. My international friends have more than one native language; native languages come 'free!' I just have some minimal and essentially useless high school and intro college French.

      Of course, my jealously extends to more than language education. It sounds like they've had so much more adventure in their lives. And they have a

  • by tepples (727027) <tepples AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:44AM (#17624452) Homepage Journal

    Does Toki Pona [tokipona.org] count? It's amazing what one can do with only 120 words.

  • hmm (Score:3, Funny)

    by compro01 (777531) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @12:47AM (#17624482)
    Must be why the Canadian government hasn't gone crazy yet.
  • Ya lo sabía! Es una ventaja más de ser bilingüe entre las muchas que ya hay.
  • statistics (Score:2, Interesting)

    by digitalderbs (718388)
    I was curious about the claim (and standard deviations) and pulled up the paper. The mean for monolinguals is 71.4 +/- 9.6 and the mean for bilinguals is 75.5 +/- 8.5. Now those std deviations are 1*sigma (68.3%) leaving a lot of overlap between the two distributions. However, they claim that these two distributions are statistically different by an F-test (if I'm not mistaken, which assumes that both distributions are normal). I'm not a clinical statician and I'm used to working with numbers closer to Avog
    • Re:statistics (Score:5, Informative)

      by dorpus (636554) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @01:32AM (#17624834)
      Normally, we would test a difference in means between two populations by a t-test. If the sample size is large enough, then even a difference that is only a fraction of a standard deviation can be statistically significant. F-tests are used in ANOVA tables, and yes, they do assume normal distributions, as well as homoskedasticity (same variance). Assuming they performed a linear regression, then one can perform a Type I F-test (added-in-order test) or Type II F-test (added-last test). One can also talk about an overall F-test, testing whether any of the effects in the model are nonzero. However, as I indicated in another post, the study only had 184 patients from a single treatment center. There is selection bias, since the study only sampled patients who were already suffering from memory loss. How many other bilingual immigrants with memory loss are lurking in the general population, who aren't going to memory loss clinics due to lack of knowledge? Also, what method did they use to adjust for "cultural differences, immigration, formal education, employment and even gender" with only 184 patients? The study only proves that bilingual patients who arrived at a particular treatment center were, on average, 4 years older than monolingual patients. It does NOT provide a causal link between bilingualism and cognitive reserve.
    • Can you make binary statements like this with such a small pool and such close distributions?

      No, of course not, except in weak papers written in obscure journals by "eminent" researchers. The fact that they use a "convenience" selection of patients that happen to wander into to their memory clinic just screams selection bias. Their total number of patients, 184, isn't terribly large which means that the standard deviation issue you bring up is more likely to be significant. I'm too lazy to to figure o

  • Galvanized minds? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by w33t (978574)
    I find this interesting. Since these are apparently, "life long" bilinguals, they must have learned the second language at an early age.

    I would seem that having two languages one's whole life would somehow affect a brain. However, I think research shows that life-long bilinguals actually use the same region of their brain when speaking either language.
    As shown by this article [72.14.253.104] - google cache - the real site barely worked. just google "bilingual brocas" [google.com]

    Perhaps bilingualism gives the brain some kind of extra s
  • The study only had 184 patients from a single treatment center. There is selection bias, since the study only sampled patients who were already suffering from memory loss. How many other bilingual immigrants with memory loss are lurking in the general population, who aren't going to memory loss clinics due to lack of knowledge? Also, what method did they use to adjust for "cultural differences, immigration, formal education, employment and even gender" with only 184 patients?

    The study only proves that bi
  • What if I know more languages? Does it increase even more?
  • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @01:28AM (#17624808)
    Most nem fogom megmagyarázni hogy mi a francot jelent amit írtam, legyen elég annyi hogy 4 évvel tovább élek mint ti, haha.

    I kind of like the idea of living 4 years longer. Does the effect stack with more than 2 languages? If that's the case then it ist Zeit für ein neu schprache gelearnen.

    Sometimes the idea that my english/american is most likely better (barring accent, but could be trained) than half of the people speaking it as a native language scares me.
  • Oh please tell me that it's exponential! I can always learn more languages...

    Then again, I'm bilingual and people are always saying I'm demented.
  • IMO, I think that this has to do with constant learning.

    With regards to language, one constantly has to keep updating the colloquialisms. But, when two (or more) languages are concerned, one much also keep in mind what is the equivalent word/phrase in the other language(s). Then there's the whole translating between languages. That would require somewhat fast thought as to not lose subtleties.

    I imagine the same is true for anyone that constantly learns and/or has to do consistently high level critical th
  • We had a person apply for a programming position, and on his resume, he listed polyglotism as one of his areas of interest. One of the other interviewers said "That's terrific! All of us here speak another language - let's see - Portugese, Spanish, Spanish, and Japanese. Which languages do you speak?"

    The poor guy sunk about six inches into his chair as he confessed "Well... none, really."
  • the two languages happen to be C and Java--then, dementia sets in instantly (I should know!). Fortunately, it's partially reversible.
  • by Raul654 (453029) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @01:46AM (#17624952) Homepage
    In the book 'Everything Bad is Good For You', they mentioned several studies that have come to the same general conclusion - staying mentally active tends to reduce both the incidence and seriousness of mental disease. One nunnery they studied, whose order believes than an idle mind is the devil's playground, the incidence of mental disease was a fraction of the total population, and the overall lifespans were tremendously greater (the two librarians were 97 and 99 years old)
  • Correlation does not equal causation. All people's brains are not perfectly equal. Perhaps suffering from dementia later means the brain has more processing capacity to spare, thus making learning two languages easier earlier in life.
  • The girlfriend. She loves bilingualism.
  • Kuplah! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Tablizer (95088)
    Kuplah!
  • I'm fluent in both English and profanity, does that count?
  • by Futurepower(R) (558542) <MJennings.USA@NOT_any_of_THISgmail.com> on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @03:46AM (#17625724) Homepage
    Title of the article: "Bilingualism Has Protective Effect In Delaying Onset Of Dementia By Four Years, Canadian Study Shows"

    That's either stupid, ignorant, or deliberate deception. The study did not prove causality. It showed that two phenomena seemed to be related.

    Here's a quote that says what was actually shown: "Our study found that speaking two languages throughout one's life appears to be associated with [my emphasis] a delay in the onset of symptoms of dementia by four years compared to those who speak one language,"...

    It's common that editors try to get attention by claiming that scientific investigation is important than it really is. I don't know what happened in this instance, but it's difficult for me to believe that the editors of a medical journal would be so ignorant about science that they would not know they were mis-reporting it.
  • by joeflies (529536) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @04:12AM (#17625844)
    I know this is only annecdotal, but my good friend works at Asian nursing home. They hire billigual people to help the elderly, because after the onset of dementia, many of the patients only remember their native tongue. Their children who were raised in the US without being trained in their parent's language often find themselves unable to communicate with their elderly parents.
  • by Kopretinka (97408) on Tuesday January 16, 2007 @05:37AM (#17626250) Homepage
    If you exercise, it's understandable that you'll be fitter longer. Bilingualism is to the brain like living in a hilly terrain to the legs. I'm dazzled that the scientists would be dazzled by a finding like this.

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