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Literacy May Predict Risk of Dementia


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A study published in the November 2019 issue of Neurology identifies a link between the ability to read and the risk of developing dementia.  Despite the perception that developed countries are almost entirely literate, an alarming rate of illiteracy is still present in developed countries.  In the United States, nearly 32 million adults cannot read.

                Keeping your mind active as you age is a well-known way to stave off the development of neurologically degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.  The new research conducted by Columbia University points to the ability to read as a predictor for the development of dementia.  Dementia is an umbrella term for the cognitive deficits that can occur with aging, most commonly in memory.

                The research team asked 983 people to participate in the study.  The participants were from Manhattan and were an average age of 77 years old.  The research team divided the participants into groups of people who could read or write and those who were illiterate.  The team then administered memory and cognitive tests, such as the recall of words, at the onset of the study and at intervals of every 18 months and 2 years thereafter.

                The researchers discovered that those adults who could not read or write were almost 3x more likely to have dementia which was already present before the study.  The people who were followed during the study who did not have dementia at the beginning of the study were 2x as likely to suffer from the development of dementia.

                In the illiterate group of participants who did not have dementia at the start of the study, 48% developed dementia within four years.  The literate group saw 27% of their participants develop dementia within four years.

                The research team believes that education and learning to read and write imparted lifelong skills on the literate group which may have strengthened the brain in ways the illiterate group did not experience.  The literate group scored higher overall with memory tests, suggesting that it was not only the use of the reading and writing which kept the brain sharp, but the development of skills themselves which also improved the brain’s resiliency.


Miguel Arce Rentería, Jet M.J. Vonk, Gloria Felix, Justina F. Avila, Laura B. Zahodne, Elizabeth Dalchand, Kirsten M. Frazer, Michelle N. Martinez, Heather L. Shouel, Jennifer J. Illiteracy, dementia risk, and cognitive trajectories among older adults with low education.  ManlyNeurology Dec 2019, 93 (24) e2247-e2256; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000008587


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