TUESDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- The ability to speak
several languages not only looks good on a resume when you're
young, it may have neurological benefits well after you pass
A new study finds that seniors who speak three, four or more
languages may have a lower risk of impaired memory than their
Most people already know the cultural advantages of learning
foreign languages, but now it appears there are also health
benefits to being able to speak in more than one tongue, said lead
researcher Magali Perquin, of the Center for Health Studies from
the Public Research Center for Health in Luxembourg.
"People who practice different languages might develop particular cognitive processes that may help them to be more resistant to brain aging and cognitive decline when getting old," Perquin added. "It might even provide additional motivation to learn new languages, which is quite interesting."
Perquin and colleagues studied hundreds of males and females who
were randomly invited to participate in the MemoVie study, a
long-term study of mental function in the elderly. The seniors, who
were 73 years old on average and had completed about 12 years of
formal education, underwent neurological and psychological
examinations and were categorized as having normal mental function,
impaired mental function or dementia. After excluding those with
dementia, the researchers looked at the number of languages the
seniors spoke currently or at some point in life to determine if
any associations existed between multilingualism and cognitive
The investigators found that the more languages the seniors
currently spoke, or had spoken previously, the better protected
they were against experiencing memory loss.
The findings, released online Tuesday, are scheduled to be
presented in April during the American Academy of Neurology's
annual meeting in Honolulu.
All of the adults currently spoke or had spoken anywhere from
two to seven languages, but 44 of the 230 study participants (19
percent) had impaired mental function.
Seniors who were fluent in three languages were nearly four
times as likely as their bilingual peers to be protected against
cognitive impairment, the researchers found. Those who spoke four
or more languages were more than five times as likely as bilingual
seniors to be protected against memory problems, according to the
The association remained true even after the researchers took
into consideration age and years of education.
"We showed multilingualism protects from cognitive impairment and, because the earliest stage of Alzheimer's disease is the occurrence of cognitive impairment, it's probably not too audacious to think that multilingualism could delay or lower the risk of [Alzheimer's disease] onset," said Perquin.
The researchers were unable to tease out a difference between
seniors with current, rather than prior, fluency in multiple
languages, and were unable to say exactly why multilingualism is so
important in reducing the risk of cognitive impairment.
"We still have so many things to learn about brain capacities," Perquin said.
One potential explanation, according to Dr. Richard Lipton, a
neurologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York
City, is the "'use it or lose it' theory of brain function," he
said. "You have to use more of your brain to speak multiple
"There's been a longstanding notion that engagement in cognitively stimulating activities protects against Alzheimer's disease," he added. "Speaking multiple languages is a form of cognitive stimulation."
Lipton said he views Perquin's findings in the context of his
"crossword puzzle study." Formally known as the Einstein Aging
Study, it found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities,
like doing crossword puzzles, may protect against age-related
It is unknown, however, whether fluency in multiple languages
protects against mental decline or is simply a marker of
potentially protective traits, like increased intelligence and
superior ability, Lipton said, describing it as "sort of a
"My preference is to believe that all forms of cognitive engagement will help you to age better and protect against dementia," he noted.
Whether that cognitive engagement includes playing bridge or
chess or learning multiple languages, Lipton said, "I want to
believe what we do makes a difference."
Research presented at meetings has not been subjected to the
same review process given to studies published in peer-reviewed
medical journals, experts note.
For more information on memory loss and aging, visit the
American Academy of Family Physicians.