Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

A Second Language May Be Your Defense to Ward Off Dementia in Your Life

Research is now contributing to promising revelations in the area of second languages and dementia, and it may have people looking to learn a new language — fast.

Growing up, my mother had family and friends who came to our home, and all of them spoke in a language I didn’t understand. It was a time of a flourishing second language (English being dominant) and a still-present pride in the mother tongue. Learning English wasn’t for everyone.

Ethic pride in some homes, my grandparents being one of them, meant no English was spoken in the house, no English newspapers, and no radio programs for English-language anything. My mother bristled against it but had no choice but to speak the native tongue, not English.

Despite this home mandate, she did speak English without any hint of an accent and determined that none of her children would speak anything but English. A second language was verboten for us.

My requests to learn my grandmother and my mother’s foreign language went unheeded. There was a strong refusal to teach me anything but a few words, and that was the extent of it. So, I had a grandmother with whom I could not communicate and a mother who refused to help with this roadblock to connection.

I don’t blame my mother. I understand that it must have been complicated living under those conditions and then going into a world outside the home where she spoke only English. In addition, her home was targeted by people against her parents’ native country. They threw rocks and spit at the house.

Now research into language, specifically second languages, is casting new light on why learning a new language would be beneficial. It’s probably going to mean big business surges for BabbelRosetta StonePimsleurDuolingo (my preference), and others.

There used to be a fantastic Japanese program (sorry, I forgot the name) that taught you about the culture and how to write in the language, but it’s gone now. Really a shame because explaining how sentences are created offered insight into the economy of expression in Japanese. If you do want to learn Japanese, there are free online programs.

Second Language and Dementia

A concept with great potential in terms of dementia and warding off its ravages is now being investigated with more zeal in the professional literature. The cognitive reserve concept refers to the maintenance of cognitive functions in instances where we would expect cognitive decline.

Several factors have been tapped to delve into what might be responsible for the most robust ways to maintain healthy cognition. One promising area is that of bilingualism. The conclusion of one study was, “In all cases, bilinguals revealed patterns that were consistent with the interpretation of protection for cognitive reserve when compared with modeling goals.” We also know that bilingualism may also contribute to developing more robust brain areas. Therefore, the benefits begin quite early in life with children.

Cognitive reserve is also called neurocognitive maintenance, neurocognitive compensation, brain reserve, and brain maintenance. All of us understand the importance of maintenance, and, indeed, maintaining our brains at optimal levels would seem prudent. If bilingualism, whether by birth or through efforts at learning a second language later in life, could contribute to this cognitive reserve, the question would be, why isn’t everyone doing it?

In fact, why are schools eliminating foreign language course requirements? Yes, computer programming is a language of sorts (Python, Java, Cocoa, Fortran, C++, Cobol, SQL), but does it have the same effect as linguistics? Foreign language may be as crucial as cursive writing, and we see where that’s going.

I would assume people aren’t signing up in record numbers for foreign language classes because they don’t know about the research, and sufficient attention is not being paid to it by the mainstream media. As one researcher put it, the answer to some forms of dementia may be hiding in plain sight.

According to some estimates, half the world will be suffering from dementia by 2050. The cost for caring for these individuals will be in the billions, if not the trillions of dollars; the pressure should be mounting now for forms of cognitive maintenance.

We are being told about diet, exercise, healthy behaviors, and activities, assuredly, but a straightforward action, learning a new foreign language, hasn’t been mentioned anywhere I have seen it. Have you?

Want to be shocked a bit more? The same research that I’ve been reading provides a rather startling fact regarding instances of dementia in an aging population. If we could put the symptoms of cognitive decline off for merely one year, this researcher estimated that by 2050 that would mean 9 million fewer cases of dementia and or Alzheimer’s disease.

If we put cognitive decline off for two years, the projection is that 22 million will be spared from dementia for that period. But these are only somewhat enlightened guesstimates. Sadly, Alzheimer’s remains a significant mystery and a disorder that medical science has yet to be effectively combated.

Excruciatingly small steps, in terms of cognitive improvement, are shown in some Alzheimer’s protocols. Still, they are not long-lived, nor do they bring the person a return to a somewhat everyday existence. I was in an Alzheimer’s protocol, and the best the patients could do was to say “good morning” to someone.

Unfortunately, although researchers are pointing to bilingualism as an essential element in maintaining brain health, they also admit that this is an area where the mechanism is poorly understood, and further brain research is required.

The research thus far, however, has indicated that the “bilingual experience stimulates crucial attentional processes, fortifying them for other purposes, and potentially creating a foundation for cognitive reserve.”

Multilingualism, therefore, builds a foundation for the future, and just as we contribute to our retirement funds, shouldn’t we be contributing to this critical reserve? If one language is good, how about more than one new foreign language?

In the famous nun’s study, a nun made it her yearly resolution to learn a new language. If I’m correct, she lived to be about 103 and was lucid until the day she died.

If we wanted to learn a foreign language after completing our educational efforts, we would have had to pay hundreds of dollars to go to specialized schools where we would immerse ourselves in a second language. Most people know the famous Berlitz school, where many international corporations enrolled their executives before assignments at foreign offices.

Today, the Internet has provided a yellow brick road at little cost and at our convenience to learn a second language. How much would it take each day for you to utilize one of those online programs? You might devote an hour or so, and within several weeks you would have at least a working vocabulary and be familiar with sentence structure. Then you can build on that by using your new skills on native speakers in your area, and each word is like more cement to protect your brain.

With each bit of language that you accumulate, you will be assisting your brain to fortify itself in those mysterious ways that scientists still don’t understand. But, understanding is not the important thing here. Brain health is what we are attempting to maintain and how the mysteries of the brain accomplish this isn’t necessarily something for us to understand.

Indeed, we’re not going to become neuroscientists because we don’t have all the years required. But we can, in a short time, do some marvelous things for ourselves, our families, and our societies. We can learn a second language.

What will you do?

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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