Learning a second language can add years to your life

ColumnistMarch 14, 2017 

Emmanuel Ngomsi

The focus of last week’s column was on the enhancement of the intelligence of children who learn a second language.

We all know that we cannot reverse the aging process, but it is possible to take measures to increase our lifespan. In his new book, “Healthy Aging,” Dr. Andrew Weil suggests that there is a plethora of anti-aging processes being promoted out there to suggest a longer and better life.

The focus should be on anti-disease, not on anti-aging, because no hormones or aging reversal process is going to prevent anyone from getting old.

Each year, the affects of Alzheimer’s disease impact great numbers of citizens and unmercifully degenerate their health, deplete their memory, and hinder their happiness. The scientific discovery of a remedy that could expunge or prevent Alzheimer’s disease would be the medical miracle of the century.

But the good news is that there are strategies available now to delay the risks that are often associated with this disease. One of these strategies is the research suggesting that by learning a foreign language, we can reduce the manifestations of some of the most common age-related diseases such as memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

Results of a study were recently released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University of Toronto, studied 450 Alzheimer’s patients, all of whom showed the same degree of impairment at the time of diagnosis. Half had spoken two languages regularly for most of their lives, while the others were monolingual.

The bilingual patients had Alzheimer’s symptoms that were diagnosed between four and five years later than the patients who spoke only one language. The research concluded that bilingual patients are able to cope with the disease better than the control group.

Many other memory exercises positively affect diseases in various ways. But, the great protective advantage of language learning against Alzheimer’s is the constant mental juggling that the bilingual brains conduct by comparing the new language structures with the language the subject is already speaking. The constant attempts to put words in the correct order and in the right syntax in a way that makes sense to the listener is a robust executive exercise that requires the memory to always challenge itself and provide a meaningful output.

Brain scans of Alzheimer’s disease patients showed that, among patients functioning at the same level, the bilingual patients acted like monolingual patients whose disease was less advanced. The researchers explain that a brain network called the “executive control system” involves parts of the prefrontal cortex and other brain areas, and is the basis of our ability to think in complex ways, Bialystok said.

But what if you were not lucky enough to be raised bilingual? Every little bit of learning helps. Of course, the more proficient you are in other language, the more you will exercise your brain, and the better it will be. Starting to learn the language at any age will certainly keep your brain active; but the sooner you start, the better.

It is important to note that being bilingual does nothing to prevent Alzheimer’s disease from striking. But once the disease does begin its silent attack, the symptoms don’t become apparent as quickly, the researchers found. It is never too late to better one’s life.

Emmanuel Ngomsi is the p resident of All World Languages & Cultures, Inc. Contact him at info@universalhighways.com, 816-554-6000 or visit www.universalhighways.com

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