Could being unable to read or write increase your risk of dementia?

13 November 2019

Neurology: Illiteracy, dementia risk, and cognitive trajectories among older adults with low education

Researchers in the US have found that people who report that they cannot read or write are at increased risk of dementia compared to people who are literate. The scientific journal, Neurology, published the findings today (Wednesday 13 November).

Who did the dementia researchers look at?

Researchers looked at 983 people from North Manhattan in New York. The average age of participants at the start of the study was 77.

All the participants had less than four years of education in their lifetime. They were also asked to report whether they’d ever learnt to read or write.

Researchers followed this group of study participants, measuring memory and thinking skills every two years for an average of four years.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that at the start of the study, the adults who could not read or write were more than two and a half times more likely to have dementia.

Those who declared that they could not read or write were also over one and half times more likely to develop dementia as the study progressed.

However not being able to read or write was not linked to a faster decline in memory or thinking problems.

Our expert’s take on the research

Dr Sara Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’ Research UK, said:

“This research suggests that not being able to read or write increases the risk of dementia, but relies on study participants giving researchers accurate information about their education. While the study didn’t explore the reasons why this might be the case, it suggests that education could boost cognitive reserve, a type of resilience that allows our brains to resist damage for longer as we get older.

“Around nine million adults in the UK are thought to have very poor literacy skills and this may limit their ability to take part in socially and cognitively engaging activities, which have been associated with a reduced risk of dementia.

“While age and genetics influence our risk of developing dementia, there are lifestyle factors we can change to reduce our risk including things to boost our cognitive reserve. The best evidence indicates that staying both physically and mentally active, not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, only drinking within recommended guidelines and eating a balanced diet are all linked to better brain health as we age.”