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SeniorSouth/Paul D. Nussbaum: Sign language may be defense against Alzheimer's disease

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Teach children to use sign language before they can talk and chances are good they'll be better able to fend off Alzheimer's disease or other dementia as senior citizens.


That's because language systems become more muscular the sooner they're cultivated and the longer they're used.

Use may start with the alphabet, graduate to names and phrases such as "more milk" and sentiments such as "I love you."

Take those statements from my wife, Kimberly, a licensed teacher of American Sign Language, who taught full time at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Swissvale before our children were born and remains a substitute teacher.

Research also demonstrates that hearing babies who learn ASL have higher IQ scores two years later than babies not exposed to it.

Young women near the age of 20 who have more sophisticated language systems tend not to manifest the classic pathological markers of Alzheimer's disease at autopsy.

Further, such systems typically lead to a higher IQ that correlates independently with the reduced risk of dementia in later life.

The evidence all adds up to the fact more years of education, greater socialization across the life span and more occupational success, travel, development of new talents, diet and exercise contribute significantly to brain health.

One tie that binds all of the behaviors is stimulation of the brain, a critically important and necessary factor for our central nervous system.

So what does this mean, and can something practical be derived from these interesting findings?

Ponder first that Alzheimer's disease is a classic progressive dementia that affects nearly 4 million Americans over age 65, but it begins its destructive course well before age 65 with potential risk factors triggering in childhood.

Consider, too, that language is a health-promoting function, not simply a primary method for communication.

And pay attention to findings that suggest a more developed language system early in life offers potential resistance to dementia.

Most important, nobody wants to experience the terrible consequences of a brain disease like dementia.

We must decide to engage in behaviors that not only stimulate new learning for our brain all of our lives, but also attempt to build our language system as best we can early in life.

This point becomes very personal today as I send my 10-year-old to the fifth grade and my 5-year-old to kindergarten.

Teaching them sign language before they could talk was akin to a farmer plowing a field before getting more sophisticated cultivating equipment to prepare the ground for planting.

Something tells me the school system is not concerned about my children getting Alzheimer's disease, but I suggest all our school systems need to be concerned.

I would encourage all of them to integrate ASL as a part of the language curriculum and focus on the short-term and long-term health benefits of such curriculum.

I believe it should begin at the earliest ages -- before kindergarten, if possible.

Finally, I would encourage health-insurance companies to consider making such a curriculum part of the basic baby-wellness and early-childhood health programs. It is never too early to begin building a strong and healthy brain.

Paul D. Nussbaum, Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist with a special interest in aging. His e-mail address is

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