The Health Risks of Being Left-Handed

Published December 06, 2011

| The Wall Street Journal

Left-handers have been the subject of curiosity, stigma and even fear over the centuries. Researchers now, however, are recognizing the scientific importance of understanding why people use one hand or the other to write, eat or toss a ball.

Handedness, as the dominance of one hand over the other is called, provides a window into the way our brains are wired, experts say. And it may help shed light on disorders related to brain development, like dyslexia, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, which are more common in left-handed people.

Other recent research suggests that mixed-handedness—using different hands for daily tasks and not having a dominant one—may be even more strongly linked than left-handedness to ADHD and possibly other conditions.

About 10 percent of people are left-handed, according to expert estimates. Another one percent of the population is mixed-handed. What causes people not to favor their right hand is only partly due to genetics—even identical twins, who have 100 percent of the same genes, don't always share handedness.

More important, researchers say, are environmental factors—especially stress—in the womb. Babies born to older mothers or at a lower birth weight are more likely to be lefties, for example. And mothers who were exposed to unusually high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a left-handed child. A review of research, published in 2009 in the journal Neuropsychologia, estimated that about 25 percent of the variability in handedness is due to genetics.

On average, there is no significant difference in IQ between righties and lefties, studies show, belying popular perceptions. There is some evidence that lefties are better at divergent thinking, or starting from existing knowledge to develop new concepts, which is considered an element of creativity. And left-handed people have salaries that on average are about 10% lower than righties, according to recent research performed at Harvard University that analyzed large income data bases, although findings of some earlier studies were mixed.

Left-handedness appears to be associated with a greater risk for a number of psychiatric and developmental disorders. While lefties make up about 10 percent of the overall population, about 20 percent of people with schizophrenia are lefties, for example. Links between left-handedness and dyslexia, ADHD and some mood disorders have also been reported in research studies.

The reasons for this aren't clear. Scientists speculate it could be related to a concept known as brain lateralization. The brain has two halves. Each performs primarily separate, specialized functions, such as language processing, which mainly takes place in the left hemisphere. There is lots of communication between the hemispheres.

Typically in right-handers, the brain's left side is dominant. But this tendency doesn't hold up with lefties, as scientists previously believed. Some 70 percent of lefties rely on the left hemisphere for their language centers, a key brain function, says Metten Somers, a psychiatrist and researcher who studies brain lateralization at Utrecht University Medical Center in the Netherlands. This doesn't appear to present problems, scientists say.

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