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Mental exercise may stave off dementia, Alzheimer's

In recent posts, we’ve explored some of the research breakthroughs for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Although scientists have yet to find a cure for this type of mental disability, new discoveries are being made all the time. The most recent discovery sounds more like urban legend, rather than science.

According to a recent study, speaking a second language may help to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by an average of 4.5 years. Researchers analyzed the medical records of 648 patients diagnosed with dementia. On average, those who were bilingual had been diagnosed with dementia symptoms at just over the age of 65. In contrast, those who only spoke a single language most often displayed their first symptoms of dementia at a median age of 61 years.

Researchers use the analogy of exercise to explain the results. Physical activity can produce lymph and circulatory benefits, among other responses, to stave off muscular atrophy in individuals. Researchers think the mental training required to be bilingual may also keep the brain in shape, particularly in the cognitive effort involved in switching back and forth between languages. However, their study was limited to language. It’s unclear whether other mental exercises might have a similar effect.

Although researchers are still working for a cure, the finding from this study could be significant to many American workers. Although the difference of just over four years might not sound substantial, it could mean that a worker would be eligible for early retirement, instead of being forced out of work.

Social Security disability insurance benefits are technically available for severe cases of dementia, but proving that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis has rendered an individual unable to work can be an uphill task. The fact that the disease is progressive may cause Social Security Administration officials to question whether an individual’s mental illness or dementia diagnosis is truly disabling.

Source: nbcnews.com, “Speaking a second language delays dementias, even in the illiterate, study finds,” JoNel Aleccia, Nov. 6, 2013

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