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Learning a language, or other new endeavor, can help maintain brain function

Dr. Amanda G. Smith

Dr. Amanda G. Smith

By Fred W. Wright Jr.

Times Correspondent

People who are bilingual have a greater resistance to the development of Alzheimer's disease, according to a recent study from York University in Toronto. The report also said being bilingual may be a weapon against the deterioration seen during aging.

The study determined that learning a second language, even later in life, delays the decline of important brain function. A set of cognitive processes known as "the executive control system" — which allows people to think in complex ways and controls the allocation of attention — is enhanced in people who are actively bilingual throughout their lives.

We asked Dr. Amanda G. Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, some questions about it.

Is the theory accurate?

There has long been a "use it or lose it" theory associated with Alzheimer's. People with higher educational levels and who do more mental activity throughout their lives tend to have lower rates of Alzheimer's or get it a few years later than those who don't. This recent study reflects a similar concept. The more you use your brain, the better chance you have at preserving your brain function.

The report suggests that learning a second language, even in later life, can be beneficial in terms of delaying the onset of Alzheimer's.

The national Alzheimer's Association ( has a whole section of its website dedicated to "maintaining your brain." In it, they offer a number of suggestions on how to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's based on data from large studies. One of the things they focus on is mentally stimulating activity. These include reading, puzzles, playing instruments, learning languages and a variety of other things. While there is not specific data as to whether one activity is better than another, it stands to reason that the more complicated the activity is, the more protective it may be.

I like to use the analogy of going to the gym. If someone goes only a few times a year, they won't have the same health benefits as someone who goes every day. Additionally, one doesn't go to the gym and just do biceps curls and leave. You work out your shoulders, your legs, your abdomen. So just doing one activity like sudoku every day might help, but it won't be as helpful as doing a variety of activities that stimulate different areas of the brain.

Do you have any anecdotes or statistics from your work in this respect?

Not specifically with regard to this. In working with bilingual people who have Alzheimer's, they often will forget their second language first and revert to using more of their native language.

Are some languages better to learn in this respect than others? Easier?

The more challenging to learn and different it is (from) one's native language, the more protective it may be, though I don't know that there is data that shows that for sure. One might assume that learning a language with completely different characters like some of the Asian languages, or ones with different characters that read from right to left instead of left to right, like Hebrew or Arabic, may be best in terms of brain activity. The more often one switches back and forth, the more stimulation it provides. Speaking a foreign language only a few times a year is probably not as beneficial as someone who does it every day.

Are there any other late-in-life skills that might apply here? What about learning how to play a musical instrument? If so, is a piano better than a violin? Is a flute better than a bass fiddle?

I don't think that one instrument is necessarily better than the other. If one is learning to read music, that is almost like learning another language. Playing an instrument also has a physical activity component to it as well. If one already plays a string instrument like the violin, learning the guitar might not be as challenging as learning to play piano.

Is any field of study — language, music, academic — a useful tool against the deterioration of the brain if taken up late in life? Is there a preferred "late in life" age to start such endeavors, or can a 90-year-old person's brain benefit as much as a 55-year-old's?

With Alzheimer's, the main brain changes include accumulation of amyloid plaque that is building up for 15 or so years before the first symptoms of forgetfulness appear. Age is the biggest risk factor. So, the benefit is probably more robust the earlier it is started. But it is never too late to try!

Fred W. Wright Jr. is a Pinellas County freelance writer. He can be reached at

Learning a language, or other new endeavor, can help maintain brain function 01/20/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 20, 2014 6:03pm]
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