MOVING to France and learning to speak French fluently may significantly stave off the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, say researchers.
In addition changing your lifestyle to include more exercise and a Mediterranean diet - often adopted with a move here - could do more and reduce your risk of dementia by as much as 60%.
Currently, one in three over-65s will develop dementia and it is the fourth leading cause of death in France with 850,000 people affected and around 600 new cases every day.
Reducing the risk of dementia by keeping your brain active through learning French and other new skills have obvious benefits but delaying the start of dementia by five years could halve deaths from the condition.
Alzheimer’s Society research officer Jess Smith said “moving to France will help in itself ” with its more active open-air lifestyle and easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables and fish
“but the single biggest thing that people can do is to take regular exercise”.
She added: “Lifestyle is the major factor in reducing your risk. The Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of dementia but the best single thing is to do more exercise.
“The five big things people can do is maintain a healthy body weight, low alcohol intake (although red wine can be beneficial), don’t smoke, healthy diet and regular exercise. You can reduce the risk of dementia by 60%.”
She said learning the language would also help with one of the problems of moving to France: stress.
“Stress is a major factor in developing dementia and speaking the language would help with this.”
Research over the past 10 years or so has shown bilingualism boosts the brain and can mean dementia develops five years later – with even learning a new language delaying the onset, although not by as much.
The latest and largest study by Edinburgh University and Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad in India found people who spoke two or more languages, even if illiterate or otherwise uneducated, saw dementia developing five years later.
Edinburgh neurologist Dr Thomas Bak, of the school of philosophy, psychology and language sciences, said: “What was interesting was that these were people who did not have two languages from birth. They had a family language and then learned the second language later in life, generally between the ages of six and 18.
“But you find benefits even if people learn languages after 18 – and we are doing further research on this.
“This type of research has only been done over the past 10 years, since the work of Dr Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, but there is increasing evidence of a delay in the onset of dementia in later learners.
“There is a growing percentage of the older population who, like your readers, are starting new pursuits and even learning a second language and I would suggest people do something really challenging to get a greater effect on cognitive development.”
In the Dordogne, Chris Grasby of the new English-speaking section of France Alzheimer support group in Bergerac, feared that second language skills were lost in dementia.
He said first-hand experience had shown him that the disease could be especially distressing for expats as “recently-learned things, such as second language skills, can be among the things that sufferers forget first”.
Dr Bak said there was not much literature on how dementia developed and “we do not know if it develops slower in bilingual people or continues at the same pace” but there was some link between the original language and “dominant” language.
“In studies on aphasia [a communication disorder, as after a stroke] often the dominant language remains – even though it may not be the original language. If you speak English at home and for social occasions but only use French for work then English remains your dominant language.
“Learning a new language is a good idea. Apart from the cultural influences it is a very taxing mental exercise. If you think about it, you are learning a lot of things: different sounds, different visual/written language, different concepts and grammatical structures, plus the different social aspects such as when to use vous or tu.
“So, for your readers I would say they should try to switch between English and French as much as possible. Make the brain work. This is the best brain gym possible!”
In her ground-breaking work on bilingualism, Dr Bialystok said being bilingual is like constantly doing crossword puzzles, “you are always using your brain”.
Further evidence comes from Sweden, where Johan Mårtensson of Lunds University said the act of learning a language makes the brain grow, with other studies showing that maintaining brain volume through eating Omega 3 rich foods did the same.
Alzheimer care costs billions
France is working towards its fourth Alzheimer’s plan as the UK is preparing its first.
UK Health minister Jeremy Hunt has visited French counterpart Marisol Touraine to see how France is progressing.
Ms Touraine reveals her new plan in a few weeks and it will include help for the other forms of dementia, which affect 38% of sufferers, plus give increased aid to carers.
France says dementia costs €4.5billion a year. Former President Sarkozy launched the third €1.5bn five-year plan in 2008 to look for treatments and ways to help carers.
The fourth plan will have more funding.
It costs €17,000 a year to look after a single Alzheimer patient at home and €26,000 if the person has to go into a care home.
However, state aid for sufferers averages just €450 a month and families are liable to pay for the care of parents.
France Alzheimer wants more direct aid for sufferers and families.
For more information:
English-language groups needed
In the Dordogne, Chris Grasby of Bergerac’s English help group at France Alzheimer says other such groups are needed across France.
The UK’s Alzheimer’s Society has lots of information to download on its website but any helpgroup here should work through the charity France Alzheimer.
The Bergerac helpline is open on Tuesdays from 10.00 to noon on 09 64 21 40 86