Should we immediately go out and enroll in a French class? A headline in 2006 announced "Cabernet Sauvignon Red Wine Reduces the Risk of Alzheimer's Disease." Should those of us who like Pinot Grigio switch to Cabernet Sauvignon? After reading that people who drink 3 to 5 cups of coffee a day are 65 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's, should tea drinkers who want to avoid dementia switch to coffee?
It is hard to interpret Alzheimer's research news. Perhaps researchers, while presenting their data accurately, also hope positive results will lead to future funding. Maybe fair and honest news reporters or their editors want to make the front page with startling headlines. For sure all news readers really want to hear good Alzheimer's news whenever possible.
In the case of the link between bilingualism and dementia, we have a unique opportunity to compare news reports -- from February 2011 -- to the actual research. In May 2011, the New York Times carried an interview with the author of the research, Dr. Ellen Bialystok. The first news report didn't say whether bilingualism protected only a small group, or whether all multilingual people -- which would include most residents of Canada, most immigrants to the US from non-English speaking countries and many people around the world who speak English, Spanish or Chinese as a second language -- were "protected."
My parents moved to New York from Austria and Hungary and spoke German as well as English, and in the case of my mother, Hungarian. They wrote and spoke English most of the time but spoke to each other in German when they didn't want us children to understand -- until we ourselves became multilingual. Is this why neither of my parents developed dementia symptoms? I doubt it. I speak French and German now and am trying to learn Spanish. Will this help me avoid dementia? The news implies this, but not the facts that Dr. Bialystok reports in her interview.
The bilingual research seems to reflect a modified "use it or lose it" philosophy -- applied not only to frequently using several languages but to frequently engaging in any activity that makes your brain jump between alternative ideation systems like French and English, words and music, and math and language, giving it something to fall back on when faced with cognitive challenges. The main implication of this research to me is that if you live a full and rich life with your mind continually switching between brain systems, your brain is likely to withstand some specific cognitive losses associated with Alzheimer's a few years longer than most people. This is not a "cognitive reserve" as some people like to think, nor a buildup of extra brain power that takes plaques and tangles longer to attack, but rather a rewiring that makes some brains more able than others to withstand physical change.
What can you do?
If you are a person living with mild cognitive impairment, a very early stage of memory loss, you might figure out what skills like bilingualism you already have and exercise those -- every day. A retired engineer would continue to build and repair things, maybe even asking friends and family to bring over broken, small appliances to be taken apart and put back together. Richard Taylor, a retired professor, keeps his mind active by emailing his cogent thoughts almost daily to thousands of friends and colleagues. Since his diagnosis, he has even written a book called "Alzheimer's From the Inside Out."
If you are someone who cares for a person with dementia, especially in the early years, make sure the person continues to practice what interests him or her for as long as possible. Don't let them get depressed, stop using the skills they have and give in to their negative thoughts: "I can't paint, photograph, play the violin the way I used to, so I will just stop altogether."
But remember, you have to have done this all your life to have any effect. The takeaway is not "learn another language," it's use every skill you have from a very early age and don't be afraid to multi-task. As the recession continues and academic courses suffer, classics professor Kristina Chew is justifiably "dismayed at the number of foreign language classes and programs that have been cut in public schools and also at colleges and universities in the face of budget issues." Training more language teachers for the young might well be one of the best national dementia-delaying social investments. Our children and their children, all of us, need to use all the skills we have to develop and use our multilingual "translating" systems -- visiting museums, attending concerts, playing an instrument -- early in life and throughout our lives, so we have something to fall back on when we face those same cognitive challenges.