Each year as International Alzheimer’s Day on September 21 (today) follows closely after International Literacy Day on September 8, I think about dementia and literacy. Specifically, I consider how people with cognitive impairments may—in addition to more widely publicized social deficits—also lose their ability to read. I also think of adults who are illiterate and how that might relate to the onset of dementia.
As a speech-language pathologist who consults in neuropsychology at Alzheimer’s Day Care Center in Rabat, Morocco, I wanted to take advantage of the calendar connection linking these international awareness days. Here are my thoughts about this month.
In a world in which at least 758 million adults still lack basic literacy skills, this year International Literacy Day was celebrated across the world under the theme of “Literacy in a Digital World.” In this context, I noted how SLPs often use digital literacy tools to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease maintain communication and social skills.
Meanwhile, the impact of World Alzheimer’s Day is growing. However, the stigmatization surrounding dementia remains a global problem requiring global action. Awareness about this degenerative and irreversible disorder helps everyone understand and care for patients and loved ones who have Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. SLPs can raise awareness about ways we can serve these patients and offer tips to caregivers on methods to enhance their quality of life.
Our work in Morocco
Our experience in Morocco in the field of clinical neuropsychology and neurology of dementia started with memory clinics in Rabat. Earlier this year, those services evolved into the creation of an Alzheimer’s day care center, which is among the first in North Africa lead by M. El Alaoui Faris, a neurologist and neuropsychologist.
The center offers people with Alzheimer’s disease—and other dementias—an opportunity to socialize and participate in music, exercise, art therapy, Snoezelen therapy (multi-sensory environments), gardening, stimulating cognitive activities, speech-language treatment, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and physical exercise in a friendly, safe and social environment.
Some of our patients never learned how to read. Those who did learn perhaps now can’t maintain focus long enough to enjoy reading.
Illiteracy and dementia: dementia and illiteracy
The links between low education levels and higher risk of dementia have been discussed for many years. In 1987, the epidemiological Shanghai study demonstrated lack of education as a major risk factor and determinant of the prevalence of dementia. Education—like learning to read—could provide protection against dementia.
In terms of how digital literacy benefits people fighting the progression of this disease, exploratory studies show that social media might actually help delay symptomatic effects of dementia. To explore this hypothesis, a study by Valerie Crooks at Kaiser Permanente Southern California sampled more than 2,200 women from ages 78 to 82. Crooks found participants with larger social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia.
Maintaining connections with relatives, colleagues and friends makes patients with dementia feel loved and supported. The study supposes that social media allows people to frequently connect—at least mentally—with family and friends. I would argue, however, that using social media to foster and maintain those connections doesn’t work as well in developing countries with high rates of illiteracy and socio-economic barriers.
I think if SLPs remain aware of the links between literacy and dementia, we can better connect the two in treatment. And if we think about ways to use digital literacy to help patients with dementia maintain their ability to connect, we can help them maintain their quality of life longer.
I plan to take more time this month to think about how these two issues relate for our professions. How about you? Please share your insights on literacy and Alzheimer’s in the comment section below.
Mohamed Taiebine, Neuropsychologist-SLP, is a senior lecturer at the International University of Casablanca, Morocco, and a consultant at the Rabat Day Care Center for Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease in Rabat, Morocco. He is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 2, Neurogenic Speech and Language Disorders, and 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders. firstname.lastname@example.org