Positive Aging: Voulez-Vous Help Your Brain?

Marilyn Murray Willison on

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," Susanna Janssen says: "The Alzheimer's Foundation reports one in nine people sixty-five and older (11%) has Alzheimer's disease. Today's count of nearly five and a half million sufferers could explode to fourteen 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, Suzi 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 in Southern California and she attended the University of California, Davis in Northern California.

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 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% 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 non-language 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.


Suzi 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 says. "Just start now already. The brain loves big challenges, fruitful frustrations, and bold new beginnings."

I don't know about you, but Suzi'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 has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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