I live in South Florida, which is frequently referred to as the home of the silver tsunami. This phrase describes the fact that people like me, the baby boomers (there are 74.9 million of us, born between 1946 and 1964), are beginning to hit retirement age. Unfortunately, this happens to be the precise age when most cases of Alzheimer’s disease begin to manifest.
In her book Wordstruck! The Fun and Fascination of Language, author Susanna Janssen says: “The Alzheimer’s Foundation reports one in nine people 65 and older (11 percent) has Alzheimer’s disease. Today’s count of nearly 5½ million sufferers could explode to 14 million by 2050 when the number of senior citizens will have doubled in the United States.”
Full disclosure: This entertaining and informative book about the wonderful world of words was written by the younger sister of my best (and first) friend from high school. When we were teenagers, Janssen and I had many of the same language-obsessed teachers in the late 1960s, but we lost touch after I went to college at UCLA and she attended UC Davis.
Thanks to Wordstruck! I learned about some very encouraging research regarding Alzheimer’s disease. According to studies by the American Academy of Neurology and York University, dementia symptoms appear at 71.4 years of age for adults who speak only one language. But for those who are bilingual, the onset is delayed until 75.5 years of age.
According to the Alzheimer Association’s website, even the best Alzheimer drugs delay symptoms by only six to 12 months. So studying a second language could be a much more effective alternative.
We now know that the brain is actually like a muscle, and learning a new (or additional) language can provide a strenuous mental workout. The more you use your thinking muscle, the better it gets at storing and recalling information.
Switching back and forth between languages is known to improve what scientists call “executive functioning,” and the more often we use those functions, the greater chance there is of decreasing or slowing the rate of age-related cognitive decline.
The good news is you don’t need to be fluent for your brain to benefit from speaking or studying a foreign language. According to a 2014 Medical Daily report, taking the time to learn just three foreign words a day can help your brain, and by the time you’ve assimilated 100 core words of a language (which should only take three months), you’ll have 50 percent of the words needed to conduct a day-to-day conversation.
Scientists have used MRIs to compare the brains of people who study foreign languages with those who study nonlanguage subjects, and what they’ve discovered is surprising. One Swedish study discussed in Science Daily showed that brain size actually increased among those who were studying languages, but not for the others.
Janssen just retired after a rewarding career as a college-level language instructor, and she shares in her delightful book much of what she has experienced as a well-traveled polyglot.
“If you dream of speaking a second language, you’ve put it off long enough in the hopes of finding the ‘right time’,” she said. “Just start now already. The brain loves big challenges, fruitful frustrations, and bold new beginnings.”
I don’t know about you, but Janssen’s enthusiasm (as well as the convincing linguistic research) is just the push I needed to sign up for a local adult language class. Willst du dich mir anschliessen?
— Marilyn Murray Willison is a columnist, motivational speaker and journalist, and author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes. Click here to contact her, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.