Not all activities that help prevent dementia or the development of neurocognitive conditions involve medical therapy. In fact, you’re doing one of them right now.
Reading and writing as it turns out, mean a great deal to human health and wellness. According to a study published in the journal Neurology, “illiteracy was independently associated with higher risk of dementia, but not with a more rapid rate of cognitive decline.”
The study, which examined hundreds of illiterate people living in the Washington Heights area of New York City, found that just the act of reading or writing regardless of educational attainment, staved off the development of dementia. They concluded that the “effect of illiteracy on dementia risk may be through a lower range of cognitive function, which is closer to diagnostic thresholds for dementia than the range of literate participants.”
This backs up previous studies that leaned toward the same conclusions. Another recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry concluded that “active participation in intellectual activities, even in late life, might help delay or prevent dementia in older adults.” Examples of intellectual activity mentioned in the study include reading anything ranging from newspapers to novels as well playing board or card games.
All of this seems to back up a long term study from the University of Michigan called the “Health and Retirement Study.” In 2016, researchers from Yale’s School of Public Health began examining the data from the Health and Retirement study and found something interesting.
Specifically, they wanted to examine the reading habits and health of more than 3,600 men and women over the age of 50. What they found was right in line with the aforementioned research. People who read books—be it fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose—for as little as 30 minutes each day over long periods of time lived, on average, two years longer than people who didn’t read.
Why is Reading So Important?
Reading as an intellectual activity challenges the brain to process information without merely relying on our senses, or in other words requiring the absorption of information with less external influence. This is because our brains learn a great deal about semantics, syntax, deeper concepts, pragmatism and social behavior when engaged in this type of activity.
A report from the National Center for Education Statistics notes that:
“Literacy helps individuals—old or young—to continue to learn new things, to read for pleasure, to be informed about the world and their communities, to handle everyday tasks and to take care of their own needs. Literacy also is essential in enabling older persons to remain in or rejoin the work force, to contribute to others of all generations through volunteerism, civic participation, and family support.”
The results of the National Adult Literacy Survey, which looked at adults age 60 an older, showed that poor prose, document, and quantitative literacy are a significant problem for many in the older adult population.
Reading with Dementia
The experience of reading begins to change as people suffer from dementia. In the beginning stages, the actual skill of reading remains, but the ability to recall the information or to comprehend new material may suffer.
As the condition progresses, things get more complicated. The middle stage of dementia is accompanied by further loss of memory and the inability to understand what is being conveyed in sentences or what some words mean, although the speed at which this occurs varies from person to person. In late stages, vocal communication can be difficult for dementia patients, meaning it’s hard to tell how much they actually read, but it is commonly coupled with a loss of interest in the activity of reading.
While it won’t stop dementia from progressing or avert your risk of having it entirely, reading is a good way to exercise your brain, relax and engage in activity that is good for stress levels and brain health, putting you in a better position to slow cognitive aging.