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05 February 2007

Bilingualism Has Protective Effect In Delaying Onset Of Dementia By Four Years, Canadian Study Shows

Thanks to Maud for posting this medical news link today on her blog and thanks to GalleyCat at Media Bistro for pointing at it.

5 February 2007

Medical News Today

Canadian scientists have found astonishing evidence that the lifelong use of two languages can help delay the onset of dementia symptoms by four years compared to people who are monolingual.

There has been much interest and growing scientific literature examining how lifestyle factors such as physical activity, education and social engagement may help build "cognitive reserve" in later years of life. Cognitive reserve refers to enhanced neural plasticity, compensatory use of alternative brain regions, and enriched brain vasculature, all of which are thought to provide a general protective function against the onset of dementia symptoms.

Now scientists with the Rotman Research Institute at the Baycrest Research Centre for Aging and the Brain have found the first evidence that another lifestyle factor, bilingualism, may help delay dementia symptoms.

. . .

"The data show a huge protective effect," adds co-investigator Dr. Craik, who cautioned that this is still a preliminary finding but nonetheless in line with a number of other recent findings about lifestyle effects on dementia.

The study is published in the February 2007 issue of Neuropsychologia (Vol.45, No.2).
(Article Date: 12 Jan 2007 - 11:00 PST)

Although this study was carried out in Canada, which has an 'Official Bilingualism' policy, you may note that, in the majority, the subjects were not people speaking French and English, but languages acquired abroad, before immigrating to North America. Maybe (probably) it is impossible to find even a few hundred speakers of Canada's two official languages close enough to Baycrest to carry out similar investigations regarding French and English bilingual fluency.

Where such positive findings, however, could have great value is on language acquisition in the home. Here parents often need encouragement to speak to their own children in the parents' own mother tongue(s), not just adopt the language which predominates in the local community and school.

It was striking recently to see and hear a French-language Radio Canada televised interview of beat author and poet Jack Kerouac taped in the early '60s. To the surprise of his Québecois audience it seems, His French was quite good, because his parents had spoken French to him at home (though at school Kerouac was taught in English). Many mill towns in New England took two generations before the French Canadian descendents all had lost their language heritage.

I see more and more of the same among many immigrants I meet today, thankfully. It's quite a contrast with what looked like a trend toward parental unilingualism to foster quick integration and cultural camouflage, particularly among southern European immigrants.

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