The cheapest Alzheimer's aid, and regrettably overlooked

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

What if it were announced that a new pill was available that could put off Alzheimer's disease onset or symptoms for more than four years? The maker of that pill would become rich and famous, right?

Just look at what the purveyors of supposed Alzheimer's medications are doing now — raking in the dough without much to put up for it, other than perhaps temporarily easing patients' and family members' anxieties for a few years. Most research I've seen has shown Alzheimer's drugs can be effective for about three years, after which time those who took the special drug quickly “caught up” to those who hadn't.

So just how valuable would that wonderful elixir that is shown to put off or slow symptoms by four (or more) years be? As it turns out, it is available, and it's relatively inexpensive.

This wonder “product” has been around since just about the dawn of talking man. Researchers have shown that speaking a second language delays Alzheimer's by an average of more than four years. Bilingual study subjects showed Alzheimer's onset at around 77 years, while mere monolinguals were hit at age 73, according to investigators affiliated with Belgium's Ghent University.

I revisited this study Wednesday while combing through intriguing stories I had saved. The impact of such findings was embedded in my memory so strongly, I had to keep the notice, which first appear a little over a year ago. Some memories can't be shaken.

As a student of several languages (a degree in German and a year's worth of Russian in college), I love the idea that my studies might be a health benefit some day.

But there's a catch. The key, of course, is whether one's brain remains actively engaged in concentrating about more than one language. You take your crossword puzzles and Jumble puzzles to keep your brain nimble, and I'll take my translated Christmas cards, YouTube videos and happy, chance encounters with native German speakers whenever I can get them. I've always believed, "If you've got it, use it," especially when it comes to having invested numerous years in studying a foreign language. Now I have a new reason to embrace that motto, though I suspect many, if not most, former language students don't give past lingual exercises a second thought. 

A team of three experimental psychologists and three neurologists studied 65 bilingual and 69 monolingual patients in parts of 2013 and 2014 to determine when Alzheimer's symptoms and diagnosis first hit.

Symptoms started showing at 71.5 years for those who spoke just one language and 76.1 for those whose minds happily wrestled with at least two. The added mental dexterity meant diagnosis of Alzheimer's was pegged at 72.5 and 77.3 years for the two groups, respectively. All numbers took education, profession and socioeconomic status into account.

It's not exactly new news that challenging one's gray matter is good for staying sharp in one's older years. Past behavioral and imaging studies have shown the benefits of bilingualism against degenerative disease. But these recent lingually focused findings are interesting for numerous reasons, especially for someone who might have a head start learning a second or third language.

It wasn't explained, but one has to wonder if Europeans then would have significantly higher Alzheimer's onset statistics since virtually every school child there is expected to start learning a foreign language at a young age. It doesn't seem that would be the case, but I plan to ask various sources, such as the Ghent researchers.

One good choice could be Ewy Woumans, who has spent much of her young academic career trying to determine the effects of knowing more than one language. She has been most interested in pinning down various physiological effects of knowing a second language — such as how old someone was when learning a second language, how often a second language is used and how deep the bilingualism runs. Now a post-graduate student, Woumans has studied the effects on the very young and the very old, and those in between.

She and colleagues want to know just how valuable the “bilingual advantage” will be “across the lifespan.” It's worth finding out.

One has to wonder how many students of a foreign language — and there have to be millions of them in the United States alone — are squandering what could be one of the best medicines they could ever want or need.

Follow James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.









Evy Woumans

Alzheimer's / Dementia

Neurology / Neuroscience


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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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