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New review says learning a second language won’t protect you from dementia

19 September 2017

Some brains struck by pathology seem to stave off its effects thanks to a “cognitive reserve”: a superior use of mental resources that may be related to the way we use our brains over a lifetime, for instance through high levels of education or, possibly, learning a second language.

Bilingual people certainly seem to use their brains differently. For example, practice at switching languages has been associated with enhanced mental control. It’s even been claimed that being bilingual can stave off dementia by up to four or five years.

If true, this would have serious implications for public policy – learning a second language would be as much a desirable health behaviour as it is an educational or cultural one. But are the brain benefits of bilingualism real?

The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has published a systematic review and meta-analysis to establish the strength of the evidence base.

The University College London research team, led by Naaheed Mukadam, surveyed hundreds of papers published up to November 2016, finding fourteen high-quality studies that measured dementia and/or mild cognitive impairment (a more subtle analogue and frequent precursor of dementia) as well as participants’ status as either mono-lingual or bilingual.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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