Posted Mar 6, 2009

WHEN Dr Giovanni d’Avossa began researching levels of dementia in North Wales he was surprised to find they were much lower than expected. Then he and his researchers realised the region’s secret weapon – speaking Welsh.

The major known risk factors for age-related memory loss, as well as heart disease and strokes, are smoking, poor diet, limited exercise and obesity.

While these are more likely in North Wales than in other parts of the country, dementia rates in Gwynedd are on a par with the rest of the UK.

Dr Giovanni d’Avossa said: “We believe it’s speaking Welsh on a daily basis from a young age that provides people in North Wales with such strong protection from dementia.

“For many years, people who can speak two languages will be at a much lower risk from dementia than monolingual speakers. For example, a person who can only speak English might get dementia from the age of 70. If that person could speak Welsh as well as English, they might not expect to get dementia until the age of 77.

“While you can take medication to lower cholesterol and the risk of strokes, which will also lower your chance of getting dementia, it is easier and at no cost to Welsh people to speak their two anguages. This is just one more reason to become bilingual.”

Dr Giovanni d’Avossa, of Bangor University’s School of Psychology, speaks Italian, Croatian and English and is also now trying to learn Welsh. He will be discussing his findings in a Wales Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience lecture, Early and lifetime risk factors for age-related dementia, at the university on March 5.

He added: “The ability of people in Gwynedd to withstand the onset of dementia is also partly down to genetic differences, being of Celtic stock, unlike the Anglo-Saxons who make up much of the UK population.

“Both the language skills and the genetic difference provide North Wales with strong protection against dementia.”

Last year there were 1,718 sufferers in Gwynedd and 905 on Anglesey, numbers which Carol Anne Jones at the North Wales office for the Alzheimer’s Society believes will increase by 35% in the next 15 years due to an ageing population. “Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease with no known cure,” she said. “It doesn’t just affect the person with it but the whole family as relatives are often forced to give up their jobs to become carers, which can be very stressful.

“Alzheimer’s can start with a loss of memory and have a variety of symptoms such as a breakdown in communication skills, personality changes, weight loss and anxiety. It can take sufferers a lot longer to do things, such as getting dressed or using a knife and fork.

“We are campaigning for the Welsh Assembly Government to do more to address the many issues surrounding Alzheimer’s.”

Dr Giovanni d’Avossa’s talk Early and Lifetime Risk Factors for Age-related Dementia is at Bangor University’s main arts lecture theatre on March 5 at 6.30pm.

More details 01248 383775/383811 or at

For more information on Alzheimer’s visit

Date: Mar 2, 2009

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