Learning a second language could help to boost cognitive skills and delay the onset of dementia. Christina Neal reveals why and speaks to Richard Howeson, owner of Britain’s biggest language learning company, uTalk, who reveals the benefits of learning another language… 

If you’re caring for a close family member like a parent or sibling who has dementia, you may be concerned about your own risk of developing the condition in the future. It’s already known that exercise can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 45 per cent, while other forms of the disease, such as vascular dementia, can be reduced by around 30 per cent. There is also evidence to show that following a Mediterranean diet may help to reduce your risk. But in addition to exercise and a healthy diet, you may be intrigued to hear that being bilingual could delay or prevent the onset of dementia.

Researchers who compared bilingual individuals with those who spoke only one language made the discovery. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist based at York University in Toronto, revealed that the brain, especially the area known as the executive control system (that deals with memory and self-control), functions better in bilinguals. Bialystok studied 211 people who were suspected to have Alzheimer’s disease and found that the bilingual patients were diagnosed just over four years later than the monolingual patients.

Cognitive reserve
Another study conducted by Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University, found that bilingual speakers could outperform monolingual speakers in tasks like editing out less important information when talking. They were also better at other mental tasks like prioritising and multi-tasking. Even five hours a week of learning can build up what experts call a ‘cognitive reserve’, which can boost brain function.

Thomas Bak, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Edinburgh, teamed up with Suvarna Alladi, a neurologist from India. The two compared the age that dementia appeared in 650 people. They found that symptoms began four and a half years later in those who could speak two languages.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and co-Founder of uTalk, Britain’s biggest online language company, is not at all surprised by these findings. He knows from personal experience that learning a new language can stimulate the mind and keep the brain active, as well as creating new opportunities for socialising and networking, both of which can be beneficial for cognitive function. Richard first formed uTalk, then named EuroTalk, in 1991 after spending many years dealing with overseas business contacts and trying to learn their native tongues. In its early days, uTalk produced a series of CD ROMS that sold over 30 million copies. The company has grown significantly since then, and now offers customers a choice of 140 languages via an app or its website. It has also launched a ‘Learn-as-you-Fly’ scheme where it offers holidaymakers flying with Emirates and easyJet a chance to learn a new language while flying.

Richard can personally speak greetings and phrases in over a dozen languages. ‘When I was traveling abroad on business before I formed uTalk, I would sit on the plane and try to learn some of the basic phrases, so that I could order a meal or at least greet my business contacts in their own language,’ he says. ‘I used to really struggle with learning languages when I was much younger and always thought there had to be a better way. Statistics showed that I was not alone and that well over 90 per cent of people embarking on language courses give up. So the challenge was to come up with a method that worked for people like me. With uTalk we have designed games that keep you hooked and concentrate specifically on hearing, understanding and speaking, as in reality, that’s what most of us want language for. We also felt that people should be allowed to choose the topics they were interested in rather than being force-fed grammar and irrelevant phrases. It has definitely worked for me!’

Busy lifestyle
Now aged 67, Richard tries to keep his mind active and leads a busy life. Fortunately, his parents didn’t have dementia, but his brother’s parents-in-law both had the condition and he saw the impact that it had on the family. ‘I do try to take care of myself,’ he says. ‘I exercise and I try to eat a healthy diet – I strongly believe that keeping the mind active and having a positive focus is a good way to stay mentally stimulated and reduce the risk of developing dementia. Anything we can do as individuals to reduce our risk of getting a form of dementia has got to be a good thing.’

uTalk is a proud sponsor of The Dementia Help Cycle Challenge, which takes place from 25th to 30thJune. Dementia Help’s co-director, Peter Berry, will cycle 330 miles from Wales to Suffolk, to raise vital funds for YoungDementia UK.

Richard adds: ‘We’re delighted to support the Dementia Help Cycle Challenge. I’m a keen cyclist and regularly play bike polo so I can fully appreciate the extent of the challenge that lies ahead for Peter. We wish him the very best of luck. It’ll be an amazing achievement.’

More information
uTalk is Britain’s biggest language company and two-time winner of the prestigious Queen’s Award for Export Achievement and Innovation. uTalk has been used by 30 million people in 100 countries. You can download the uTalk app at utalk.com/app or visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/uTalk/