Universities should insist that students learn a second language as part of their degree to help prevent dementia in later life and broaden their horizons, a language expert has claimed.
Professor Antonella Sorace, founder of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh University, said there was now good evidence to show that bilingualism could protect the brain in later life.
Studies have shown that certain types of dementia appear up to five years later for people who speak a second language compared with monolinguists.
It is thought bilingual people have a cognitive reserve that delays the onset.
Prof Sorace said she’d like children to learn languages from age five until they finish university.
“Languages should be a requirement for any kind of degree,” she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington.
Whether people are doing classics or literature or modern languages or a science degree, languages should be a requirement.
“Bilingualism opens in the mind – in a very, very fundamental way. So, knowledge of languages can be of benefit, no matter what you do.
“It would be extremely beneficial in terms of child benefits and also benefits across the lifespan.
“And also the understanding of other cultures, being able to travel and talk to people, that’s part of opening the mind in a broader sense”.
Prof Sorace, who speaks Italian, English and French and understands Spanish & Sardinian said even brief language courses could improve mental ability and ward off decline in later life.
Prof Sorace recently carried out a study of retired people doing an intensive course in Gaelic on the Isle of Skye.
“They didn’t know a word of Gaelic, so we tested them beforehand and after a week of a very intensive course, five hours a day,” she added.
“And sure enough, when we compared them with other active retired people who were doing a course on something else, not just couch potatoes, we found in those who were doing a language course, the brain responds.
“So even when you are in your 60s or 70s, your brain responds. We found this one-week intensive language course led to an improvement in cognitive function It’s a significant improvement.”
There are currently 850,000 people in Britain suffering from dementia but some studies have suggested that around 30 per cent of cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes.
Dementia expert Professor Carole Brayne, of Cambridge University said that education appeared to protect people against developing dementia. A poor education is one seven risk factors which raise the chance of developing disease like Alzheimer’s alongside smoking, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, diabetes, depression and obesity.
Prof Brayne who was also speaking at the conference said: “We need investment and social structures to help people lead healthy lives.
“If we were able to address all the seven risk factors here we think we could reduce the prevalence of dementia by around 30 per cent. There is all to play for.’