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Being Multilingual Cuts Risk of Memory Problems

Study Shows Speaking More Than 2 Languages May Protect Against Age-Related Memory Loss

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 23, 2011 -- People who speak more than two languages during their lifetime may be at reduced risk of developing memory problems as they age, new research indicates.

Researchers studied 230 men and women with an average age of 73 who had spoken or currently spoke two to seven languages. Only 44 of the study participants (19%) had memory problems.

People who spoke three languages were three times less likely to have memory problems, compared to those who were bilingual. People who spoke four or more languages were five times less likely to develop cognitive problems compared to those who only spoke two languages.

Benefits of Being Multilingual

"It appears speaking more than two languages has a protective effect on memory in seniors who practice foreign languages over their lifetime, or at the time of the study," says Magali Perquin, PhD, of the Center for Health Studies from the Public Research Center for Health in Luxembourg.

She says in a news release that further research is needed to confirm her team's findings and "determine whether the protection is limited to thinking skills related to language or if it also extends beyond that and benefits other areas of cognition."

The news release from the American Academy of Neurology notes that the research was conducted in Luxembourg, where many people speak two or more languages.

The study abstract says participants, 57% of whom were female, were randomly invited to take part in the study, and no one with dementia was accepted.

Participants were asked about the number of languages they spoke fluently and practiced, either currently or during their lifetimes.

The researchers conclude multilingualism may be protective against cognitive loss in seniors.

The study is scheduled to be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology's 63rd annual meeting.

This study will be presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

SOURCES: News release, American Academy of Neurology.American Academy of Neurology annual meeting, April 9-16, 2011.

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