Parli Italiano? Learning New Languages in Middle Age Can Combat Memory Loss


Mi Chiamo Luanne. Come tu chiami?

Those were the first phrases on the chalkboard in my 10-week intensive Italian class at Instituto Italiano Scuola in San Francisco. I figured I’d study Italian to prepare for my first trip to Italy in September per il mio grosso compleanno (for my big birthday).

Apart from making sure my mother and I board the right trains (don’t want to end up like Billy Hayes on the Midnight Express to Turkey) and shell out the right amount of euro for the gondola, I was inspired by research showing that learning second languages can combat Alzheimer’s.
I already experience what my friend, Dick Weaver, calls youngsheimers, those frightful pre-senior moments of not remembering it was my turn to carpool the girls to soccer, or the name of my favorite Greek restaurant in Jackson Square. Oh, yeah, Kokkari. That’s it! Amazing lamb chops.

We’re told that in our 40s, the brain starts shrinking and there’s a loss in neuron connection. The normally-aging brain also has lower blood flow and operating systems slow down. We can see a drop in verbal fluency, among other behavioral changes. How does teaching old dogs new, tricky languages help?

According to the American Psychology Association Online new evidence shows challenging ourselves by learning a new language or playing a new musical instrument can help prevent the onset of dementia. Yes, music, too, can be a language. Just ask kids who dread those piano lessons.

A study called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Edlerly (ACTIVE) studied 2,800 volunteers through "short mental workouts." Those workouts involved three thinking skills: Memory lists, reasoning (looking for patterns in strings of numbers and letters) and visual concentration. Those who received 18 of training were compared with those who received ten hours. The ones who trained longer were significantly quicker at everyday activities, including reading medicine bottles, finding items in a pantry and reacting to computer information. The good news is the benefits could still be seen five years later. Call it sustainable prevention!

The AMA points out regular aerobic exercise also aids cognition probably because it boosts blood flow and brings more oxygen to the brain. Guess they figure learning language is exercise for the brain. And I must admit, two hours of Italian is akin to two hours on an Elliptical. When I return home, I’m ready for a mug of chianti and the new season of Weeds.

And, speaking of Weeds, if you smoke (tobacco, that is) you might need language more than the rest of us. According to Science Daily scientists in France find smokers appear to have worse memories than non-smokers.

The authors of the study report "smoking in middle age is associated with memory deficit and decline in reasoning abilities." Apparently, a comparison study showed a group that smoked was in the lowest-performing range (20 percent lower than non smokers). Ex-smokers scored higher than smokers, and those who stopped smoking during the study experienced improvement in other health areas, such as better diets and more exercise.

Will learning Italian sharpen my noggin? I’ll try to remember to get back to you on that. But first I have to book a reservation at my fave Greek restaurant for August. What’s it called, again?


Image: icathing

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Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.