Can Learning a Foreign Language Prevent Dementia?

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Le Baron
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Re: Can Learning a Foreign Language Prevent Dementia?

Postby Le Baron » Thu Jun 30, 2022 9:29 am

The focus on bilingualism is interesting for language enthusiasts, though it has been presented in media as being a sort of general 'key' to avoiding/slowing neurodegenerative decline. When perhaps any range of specialised skills requiring creative use may well be beneficial. I've met just as many older bilingual/multilingual people whose language facility declines with their general ageing; even when the languages can be used.

My neighbour works in a place which houses people with dementia onset, though there are also some residents who are not suffering from it. One woman she tells me about is originally from Sweden, but speaks Dutch (and other languages) to a very high level. She is known there for being cognitively sharp. What I wonder is if she, and those like her, just have a tendency to remain cognitively robust and so the languages remain intact. Which might give the impression that the languages are responsible. Dementia also likely results from genetic inheritance (correct?) so that no matter what you do you can succumb to it and it can eventually extinguish even the coping mechanisms.
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Re: Can Learning a Foreign Language Prevent Dementia?

Postby Cavesa » Thu Jun 30, 2022 12:41 pm

Le Baron wrote: I've met just as many older bilingual/multilingual people whose language facility declines with their general ageing; even when the languages can be used.

Yeah, it's multifactorial. Among the saddest are the stories of people, who used to speak perfectly the language of their new country, and then lost it to dementia. They have been productive bilingual members of the society for decades. And now, they are socially isolated and very hard to care for due to the language barrier, as they no longer speak the local language and understand better the language of a country far away, that they had left ages ago.


My neighbour works in a place which houses people with dementia onset, though there are also some residents who are not suffering from it. One woman she tells me about is originally from Sweden, but speaks Dutch (and other languages) to a very high level. She is known there for being cognitively sharp. What I wonder is if she, and those like her, just have a tendency to remain cognitively robust and so the languages remain intact. Which might give the impression that the languages are responsible. Dementia also likely results from genetic inheritance (correct?) so that no matter what you do you can succumb to it and it can eventually extinguish even the coping mechanisms.

There is not just one dementia. The various types are different in etiology, typical symptomes, typical imagery results, evolution, etc.

Not entirely correct, most dementias are multifactorial, with genetic inheritance playing a significant but not decisive role. Differently important in each type.

Alzheimer seems to be more about genetics than vascular dementias (but you could definitely well argue that vasculatory diseases have some genetic predispositions too, but I guess we'll all agree they are just as much about lifestyle choices) ,but it does have various non genetic factors playing a role too, physical and mental exercise is definitely recommended as prevention (imperfect prevention of course) too. The Korsakoff is in vast majority of cases self induced (alcohol), and it is a dementia too. No gene needed for it. And there are many more of course. For example, I had a patient with a totally secondary organic dementia, caused by a long term doctor supported addiction to benzodiazepines and a bit of opioids. That lady had just herself and her dumb GP (or perhaps a better word for that moron would be dealer) to thank for her cognitive symptomes, no genetic factor needed. After her sevrage (which was not easy), there was a clear improvement of the symptomes but of course majority wasn't recuperable.

We are still in the phase of the general public learning about dementia in general, with most focus on Alzheimer's. It is already difficult and important. And huge progress is being made in this area. But I hope we will soon get at least the "there are more types of dementia and some are more preventable, than others" info out too :-)
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Re: Can Learning a Foreign Language Prevent Dementia?

Postby Le Baron » Thu Jun 30, 2022 1:43 pm

Korsakoff syndrome is suspected in my father. My brother's wife, who has a different speciality however (renal consultant), suggested it to my brother, but my father is too stubborn to take any medical advice. It will be his downfall. Though right now he has more energy than my brother! My grandmother had advanced Alzheimer's before she died, so between that and his preposterous alcohol use it's hard to know. Plus he had a stroke just before Covid and since then he can't even talk, so assessing his language (production) decline is impossible.
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Re: Can Learning a Foreign Language Prevent Dementia?

Postby Cavesa » Fri Jul 01, 2022 9:45 am

Le Baron wrote: it's hard to know.


Yeah, that's the key issue. As we are talking about stuff that touches mostly older population, it is pretty much impossible in most cases to untangle the various factors playing a role. It's pretty easy to detect various genetic based defects in a baby, the outside world hasn't had the time to mess it up yet. But in a person with a life time of other stuff interfering? Only a few diagnoses are as clear as the Korsakoff (in most cases, not even all of them, as your unfortunate example shows clearly). Or rather: stuff gets obvious only too late. Telling apart early Alzheimer from early vascular dementia and from normal aging of the brain? Good luck, we could usually just throw a dice. And dealing with various patients losing various functions in various ordre and at a various pace...

And in all this that we do not really know, popular articles come with "learn a language to prevent dementia".

I was about to share a relevant family story too, but it would be far too heartbreaking to read on this forum. So I deleted it and I'd like to end on a positive note instead. Yesterday, I had a patient. She was 82 years old and consulted for a very minor sports injury. She was in a better shape then me and vast majority of my colleagues both physically and mentally. She had been a physicist before retirement! So, it is possible to get such a miracle, even though it won't be the case for most of us. But it is clear that it would be too narrow and not accurate at all to just say "oh, study physics to prevent dementia!" :-) She probably benefits some good genes and also a lifetime of intellectual stimulation and physical activity. And also some good luck mixed in. I have no doubts the intellectual stimulation and brain training has played a huge role, but no clue, whether she'd get the same results, had she been a linguist instead.
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Re: Can Learning a Foreign Language Prevent Dementia?

Postby zenmonkey » Fri Jul 01, 2022 2:50 pm

In some rarer cases, various types of mental stimulation can help delay dementia.

But since there are so many different types of dementia and factors leading to it, the short answer is 'not really' - 'rarely may help'.
Probably the current factors that impact the onset of dementia the most are genetics, sleep, prion-type diseases, and cardiovascular.
Language learning doesn't impact those.
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Re: Can Learning a Foreign Language Prevent Dementia?

Postby rdearman » Fri Jul 01, 2022 3:54 pm

zenmonkey wrote:In some rarer cases, various types of mental stimulation can help delay dementia.

But since there are so many different types of dementia and factors leading to it, the short answer is 'not really' - 'rarely may help'.
Probably the current factors that impact the onset of dementia the most are genetics, sleep, prion-type diseases, and cardiovascular.
Language learning doesn't impact those.

Oh I don't know... It has certainly impacted my sleep before.
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