Health & Wellness

Illiteracy May Boost Dementia Risk

Illiterate people may be three times more likely to develop dementia, according to researchers, while reading may help fend off the condition.


People who never learned to read or write may a risk for dementia nearly three times that of people who are literate, according to study results published in the journal Neurology.

Supported by the US National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging, the study involved just under 1,000 Americans with an average age of 77 who had four or fewer years of education. Researchers compared how those who were literate and illiterate fared in cognitive and medical testing over the course of four years, evaluating subjects’ language skills, how fast they completed tests, and their spatial and reasoning skills.

“Our study also found that literacy was linked to higher scores on memory and thinking tests overall, not just reading and language scores,” study author Jennifer J. Manly said in a statement. “Even if they only have a few years of education, people who learn to read and write may have lifelong advantages over people who never learn these skills.”

After adjusting for age, socioeconomic status, and cardiovascular disease, the researchers found that illiterate people were three times more likely to have dementia at the start of the study and were twice as likely to develop the condition during it.

The findings also suggest continued reading and writing in later life may help protect against the disease. “These results suggest that reading may help strengthen the brain in many ways that may help prevent or delay the onset of dementia,” Manly said.

“Being able to read and write allows people to engage in more activities that use the brain. Previous research has shown such activities may reduce the risk of dementia. Our new study provides more evidence that reading and writing may be important factors in helping maintain a healthy brain.”

Manly says she hopes future studies will examine whether increased funding in education will produce lower rates of dementia.

Photo: iStock/SilviaJansen.