Does bilingualism protect against dementia? A meta-analysis

Psychon Bull Rev. 2020 Oct;27(5):952-965. doi: 10.3758/s13423-020-01736-5.


Evidence suggests that bilingualism may contribute to neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve, allowing individuals to resist cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's disease progression, although the idea remains controversial. Here, we argue that the reason for the discrepancy stems from conflating incidence rates of dementia and the age at which the symptoms first appear, as well as statistical and methodological issues in the study designs. To clarify the issues, we conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis on the available literature regarding bilingualism and Alzheimer's disease, including both retrospective and prospective studies, as well as age of onset and incidence rates. Results revealed a moderate effect size for the protective effect of bilingualism on age of onset of symptoms of Alzheimer's disease (Cohen's d = 0.32), and weaker evidence that bilingualism prevents the occurrence of disease incidence itself (Cohen's d = 0.10). Moreover, our results cannot be explained by SES, education, or publication bias. We conclude with a discussion on how bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve and protects against Alzheimer's disease and recommend that future studies report both age of onset as well as incidence rates when possible.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Bilingualism; Dementia; Meta-analysis.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease*
  • Cognitive Reserve*
  • Humans
  • Multilingualism*
  • Protective Factors