Studying This Could Slash Your Alzheimer's Risk, Experts Say
Having this one skill can delay dementia's symptoms, some researchers suggest.
Alzheimer's disease is a serious progressive disorder that results in memory decline and the loss of other important cognitive functions. Right now, 5.8 million Americans are living with the condition, which is considered the most common form of dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, experts now believe there may be ways to stave off the condition's symptoms. Specifically, they say there's something you can study that has a protective effect on the aging brain, especially in those with a high risk of Alzheimer's. Read on to find out which skill may delay the onset of dementia symptoms or even reduce your risk.
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Studying another language may reduce your Alzheimer's risk.
Certain habits that keep the brain active throughout life may help delay the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms, some experts say. In particular, speaking two or more languages appears to have a positive effect on long-term cognitive health. "On the whole, speaking more than one language can delay many symptoms of dementia," writes the Alzheimer's Society.
Though more research is needed to confirm the relationship between multilingualism and delayed dementia risk, certain studies have found that learning additional languages may help you build up "cognitive reserve," which your brain can use later in life. "It's thought that activities that develop cognitive reserve work because they increase the robustness of your brain's architecture—enriching blood flow, enhancing the activity of neurons and putting more of your brain to use," explains the Mayo Clinic. "This may make up for the loss of diseased parts of the brain," their experts say.
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However, Alzheimer's patients may lose their second language over time.
As Alzheimer's disease and related dementias progress, many patients who were once bilingual gradually revert to their native language, losing some or all of their second language skills. "People do experience changes in language as dementia progresses, and this includes multilingual people," explains the Alzheimer's Society. "Even someone who has spoken a second language for years might start to drop in words from their mother tongue, perhaps unknowingly," they write. "Over time, the language that's less familiar and not so deeply embedded tends to be lost first. This is often the language that's been learned later on."
Actively practicing your second language may help you retain it for longer if you do develop symptoms of dementia.
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There may be other ways to build up your cognitive reserve.
Scientists first introduced the concept of cognitive reserve in the 1980s, when they discovered during autopsy studies that some deceased people had plaques and tangles in the brain indicative of Alzheimer's, but no observable signs of the disease in their lifetime. The researchers believed that these individuals lacked symptoms of dementia because they had kept more cognitively active throughout their lives.
While speaking a second language appears to have brain boosting benefits, multilingualism is not the only skill with this effect. Some researchers now believe that by learning and practicing an instrument, routinely doing crossword puzzles, or taking up creative hobbies, you can delay the worst effects of dementia.
Certain passive habits may also make the brain more resilient to dementia. In particular, doing leisure activities that reduce stress, getting regular exercise, getting the recommended hours of sleep, and keeping up social ties may also help build your cognitive reserve.
Doing so may be beneficial to everyone's aging process.
More recent research has sought to confirm this theory, and probe the benefits of establishing a cognitive reserve. What scientists have discovered is that building up a cognitive reserve may be beneficial for everyone as they age—not just those at higher risk of Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
"The Cognitive Reserve (CR) hypothesis suggests that the brain actively attempts to cope with neural damages by using pre-existing cognitive processing approaches or by enlisting compensatory approaches," explains a 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. "This would allow an individual with high CR to better cope with aging than an individual with lower CR." The study adds that "the reserve is relevant not just to the onset of dementia or other neurological, age-related diseases, but also to normal aging, as it allows the aging population to cope more efficiently with age-related brain changes."
So, if you're considering learning a second language, picking up an instrument, or tackling the weekly crossword, your brain may thank you later. Treating learning as a lifelong endeavor can only help your health.
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