Good thing you're reading this—it might help keep dementia at bay. A new Columbia University study finds that illiterate people are nearly three times as likely to suffer from dementia, CNN reports. Scientists reached this conclusion after visiting 983 people over age 65 in the Washington Heights area of New York City. Subjects were asked if they were literate and tested for language, memory, visual, and spatial skills. The illiterate not only performed worse, but were more likely to develop dementia within a few years. Reading and writing help people "engage in more activities that use the brain, like reading newspapers and helping children and grandchildren with homework," study author Jennifer Manly tells Science Focus.
Such activities have been linked to lower dementia rates before, but this study connects higher memory and thinking scores—not just reading and language ability—to reduced dementia risk. "These results suggest that reading may help strengthen the brain in many ways that may help prevent or delay the onset of dementia," Manly says. In all, researchers visited 237 illiterate and 746 literate people; within an average of 4 years, the 35% dementia rate among the illiterate rose to 48%, while the 18% rate among the literate rose to 27%. Many of the illiterate subjects came from the Dominican Republic and had to leave school in order to work. Manly says more research could help make a case for adult literacy courses to help stave off dementia. (Read more dementia stories.)