Have Trouble Reading? You May Be at Risk for Alzheimer's

Did you have trouble learning to read?

A lot us did.  But we finally mastered it, and now many of us (like me) read about two books a week (more, if I didn't have a teenager!).

But a new study now says that those who find it hard when they first begin reading may be at higher risk of Alzheimer's later in life.

Older adults with a history of reading problems perform similarly on some neuro-psychological tests to those who show signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) associated with early Alzheimer’s disease. 

MCI is a term used to identify individuals with memory complaints and poor neuropsychological test performance but who otherwise functional normally. Having MCI has been identified as a risk factor for subsequent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers assessed the relationship between MCI classification and suspected reading disorder in almost 2,000 participants who were 62 years of age. Individuals with previous dementia, stroke and other neurological disorders were excluded from the study.

“We found a strong relationship between poor reading ability and low memory test scores,” says lead author Brian K. Lebowitz, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Neurology at Stony Brook Medicine, and Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

 One key example from the findings is that individuals with evidence of lifelong reading difficulty were two to three-and-one-half times more likely than their peers to score at a level suggestive of possible memory decline on two tests commonly used to evaluate memory complaints in older adults.

The study assessed memory recall, reading, visual processing, and executive functioning using tests frequently employed in the assessment of cognitive complaints in older adults. Specific areas of memory analyzed included recall of previously presented short stories and word pairs, and the ability to draw from memory previously presented visual figures.

 Dr. Lebowitz said that because memory complaints are extremely common in older adults, a lot of weight is placed on memory test scores when assessing the clinical significance of a patient’s memory concerns.

However, memory tests are often given alone, without a comprehensive battery of neuro-psychological tests that includes reading ability, and without a clear understanding of a patient’s lifelong pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

“It could mean that a reading or learning disorder history may increase the misdiagnosis of neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s disease," says Lebowitz.  "Alternatively, a reading disorder may represent a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease in later life.”

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