As we get older, we all want ways to maintain strong brain function and slow age-related cognitive decline. Of all the strategies available to boost brain health, one of the most pleasurable is curling up with a good book.
Making a habit of reading can help you maintain good cognitive health, which is why the National Institute on Aging lists reading as one of the main ways to stay mentally sharp as we age. The act of reading strengthens a complex network of cells and neurons in the brain. The more you read, the stronger and more sophisticated this network becomes.
One study found that younger people who read perform better on tests involving rapid naming, word reading and fluency. The more you practice reading, the more it seems to help. In that way, reading seems to benefit the brain in the same way that regular physical exercise can benefit the body.
Reading May Slow Cognitive Decline
One of the best-known studies in this area was done by researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
The study involved 300 older adults who underwent testing on memory and thinking ability every year for six years. They also answered in-depth questionnaires about reading habits since childhood. After their deaths, at an average age of 89, scientists studied their brain for physical evidence of dementia, including lesions, plaque and protein tangles.
They found “higher levels of cognitive activity in childhood, middle age, and old age were associated with slower rates of cognitive decline.” Those activities included reading books, visiting a library and writing letters.
Those who reported being avid readers well into old age also showed as much as 30% less memory function loss than those who used other forms of cognitive activity, the study found.
The Benefits of Reading Increase Over Time
Studies have shown a commitment to regular reading provides more benefits to the brain. For example, one study found that people who grew up in households with books were more likely to achieve higher education, which is associated with higher income and better cognitive health over the course of a lifetime.
Reading fiction seems to provide an extra level of benefits, especially in the area of empathy, giving them a heightened ability to put themselves into the shoes of another person and understand their viewpoint. In that way, the solitary act of reading actually makes people more social. They better understand other people by placing themselves into the minds of people in books.
Writing about this aspect of reading in Psychology Today, Dr. Alan Castel noted that “Recent research supports the notion that reading influences our thought processes and is a very potent form of brain training.”
One of those is in the area of social intelligence. Castel wrote that studies have shown those who regularly read might be better at the emotional processing of situations, including the ability to interpret the mental states, feelings, and emotions of others.
Clearly, reading provides benefits to brain function while also providing an enjoyable way to see the world through the eyes of other people. And it’s only a good book and comfortable chair away.