Bilingualism is associated with a delayed onset of dementia but not with a lower risk of developing it: a systematic review with meta-analyses

Stefano Brini*, Hamid R. Sohrabi, Jeffrey J. Hebert, Mitchell R. L. Forrest, Matti Laine, Heikki Hamalainen, Mira Karrasch, Jeremiah J. Peiffer, Ralph N. Martins, Timothy J. Fairchild

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    22 Citations (Scopus)
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    Some studies have linked bilingualism with a later onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Not all studies have observed such relationships, however. Differences in study outcomes may be due to methodological limitations and the presence of confounding factors within studies such as immigration status and level of education. We conducted the first systematic review with meta-analysis combining cross-sectional studies to explore if bilingualism might delay symptom onset and diagnosis of dementia, AD, and MCI. Primary outcomes included the age of symptom onset, the age at diagnosis of MCI or dementia, and the risk of developing MCI or dementia. A secondary outcome included the degree of disease severity at dementia diagnosis. There was no difference in the age of MCI diagnosis between monolinguals and bilinguals [mean difference: 3.2; 95% confidence intervals (CI): −3.4, 9.7]. Bilinguals vs. monolinguals reported experiencing AD symptoms 4.7 years (95% CI: 3.3, 6.1) later. Bilinguals vs. monolinguals were diagnosed with dementia 3.3 years (95% CI: 1.7, 4.9) later. Here, 95% prediction intervals showed a large dispersion of effect sizes (−1.9 to 8.5). We investigated this dispersion with a subgroup meta-analysis comparing studies that had recruited participants with dementia to studies that had recruited participants with AD on the age of dementia and AD diagnosis between mono- and bilinguals. Results showed that bilinguals vs. monolinguals were 1.9 years (95% CI: −0.9, 4.7) and 4.2 (95% CI: 2.0, 6.4) older than monolinguals at the time of dementia and AD diagnosis, respectively. The mean difference between the two subgroups was not significant. There was no significant risk reduction (odds ratio: 0.89; 95% CI: 0.68–1.16) in developing dementia among bilinguals vs. monolinguals. Also, there was no significant difference (Hedges’ g= 0.05; 95% CI: −0.13, 0.24) in disease severity at dementia diagnosis between bilinguals and monolinguals, despite bilinguals being significantly older. The majority of studies had adjusted for level of education suggesting that education might not have played a role in the observed delay in dementia among bilinguals vs. monolinguals. Although findings indicated that bilingualism was on average related to a delayed onset of dementia, the magnitude of this relationship varied across different settings. This variation may be due to unexplained heterogeneity and different sources of bias in the included studies. Registration: PROSPERO CRD42015019100.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-24
    Number of pages24
    JournalNeuropsychology Review
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 13 Mar 2020

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.

    A correction exists for this article and can be found in Neuropsycology Review (2020) vol. 30 p. 25-27 at doi: 10.1007/s11065-020-09435-7


    • Bilingualism
    • Multilingualism
    • Mild cognitive impairment
    • Dementia
    • Alzheimer’s disease
    • Meta-analysis


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