It has now been proven that a low level of education is a risk factor for the development of various forms of dementia. The problem is related to the concept of cognitive reserve, which is the ability of the brain to adapt and continue to function at full capacity despite age-related physiological changes. And according to a growing body of scientific evidence, of all the cognitive stimuli that can produce benefits in this sense, fluency in multiple languages ​​appears to play a particularly important role. This particularly affects bilingual people who learn from birth to express themselves fluently in at least two languages.

Whether learning a second language can have the same effects later in life is controversial in the scientific community. Exploring the topic is a Article published by New York Timeswhich takes stock of what we know about it today.

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In bilinguals, symptoms of cognitive decline appear later

Various studies suggest that bilingualism can delay the onset of symptoms of cognitive decline associated with pathologies such as Alzheimer’s by up to four or five years. This does not mean that speaking more than one language will protect you from the disease. However, since these are age-related diseases for which there is currently no real cure, simply delaying their onset can make a difference.

One studyFor example, the study published in Neuropsychologia in 2013 included a total of 648 people with an average age of 66 years who suffered from various forms of dementia. Of these, 391 spoke two or more languages ​​fluently. Well, in the latter, regardless of the form of dementia they suffered from, symptoms of cognitive decline appeared on average four and a half years later than in those who could only speak one language. And the observation, the authors emphasized, turned out to be independent of factors such as gender, type of employment, living in rural areas or urban centers, and even level of education.

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Several subsequent studies had confirmed these results, e.g one very special had also highlighted that active use of more than one language represents a greater protective factor than “passive” bilingualism. The research was conducted in Barcelona, ​​where most citizens understand both Spanish and Catalan, but the active use of the two languages ​​varies greatly from district to district.

“We have seen that the more you use both languages ​​and the better your language skills, the greater the neuroprotective benefit – he concluded Marco Calabria, first author of the study – If something doesn’t work properly due to the illness, thanks to bilingualism, the brain finds efficient alternative systems to solve the problem.” Essentially, it’s as if the brain is constantly training to find the right word in the choose the correct language – i.e. in the language that the person is currently speaking to the person they are talking to. This training would help him if things got worse.

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The benefits for those who later learn a language

But does the same apply to those who start learning a second language later in life? In this case, the evidence is weak and there are conflicting data in the literature. A review published in 2021 on Frontiers in the neuroscience of aging had highlighted these discrepancies and concluded, however, that learning a second language tends to be associated with improvements in memory, attention control, and functional connectivity between different brain regions.

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As expected, stimulating the brain through learning actually affects cognitive reserve, according to experts at Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention It can be considered a factor that can potentially reduce the risk of dementia. Additionally, some experts cited by The New York Times point out that taking language classes may provide an additional benefit: social connections. What experts consider, as well as the level of education, to be a preventive factor for the development of dementia.