Study: Illiteracy Can Triple the Risk of Developing Dementia


Nov 26, 2019


People who could never learn to read and write are at triple the risk of developing dementia than those who are literate, according to new research published in the journal Neurology.

“Being able to read and write allows people to engage in more activities that use the brain, like reading newspapers and helping children and grandchildren with homework,” Jennifer J. Manly, PhD, study author and professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University, said in a statement. “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.”

As of 2019, the overall literacy rate of India is 69.1%, which is an abysmally low portion of a population of almost 1.4 billion people. According to the last country-wide census in 2011, Bihar, at 63.82%, is the least literate state in India. Coincidentally, Bihar is one of the states expected to experience a 200% or greater increase in the total number of dementia cases over three decades, according to data from Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India.

Dementia is also known to affect women more than men, and women globally are less literate than men.

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This new study looked at around 1,000 people with an average age of 77 who had gone to school for four years or less. Of this group, around 300 were illiterate and around 700 were literate. Both groups underwent medical exams and took tests for memory, thinking, language, speed, spatial, and reasoning skills. Then, they attended follow-up appointments every 18 months for two years.

At the beginning of the study, 35% of the illiterate group of people had dementia, as compared to 18% of the literate group. Four years later, 48% of the illiterate group of people had dementia, as compared to 27% of the literate group. After adjusting for age, socioeconomic status, and heart disease, researchers found that overall, illiterate participants were thrice as likely to develop dementia than literate participants.

“Our study also found that literacy was linked to higher scores on memory and thinking tests overall, not just reading and language scores,” said Manly. “These results suggest that reading may help strengthen the brain in many ways that may help prevent or delay the onset of dementia. 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.”


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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