July 9, 2013
New study finds that reading can keep your brain sharp as you age
by Nick Davies
Good news, book people: there’s now an official academic study that says that being an active reader and writer throughout your life can help stave off memory problems and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Marina Koren writes for Smithsonian Magazine’s Surprising Science blog that the study published in Neurology last week showed that “writing and engaging in other similar brain-stimulating activities slows down cognitive decline in old age, independent of common age-related neurodegenerative diseases.”
The researchers who ran the study followed 294 people over the course of six years, putting them through a range of mental tests each year to test their memory and cognitive faculties, and surveying them about their reading and writing habits over the course of their lives. After the participants’ deaths, their brains were examined for telltale signs of dementia, which can manifest physically in the form of lesions and other abnormalities, which are common in Alzheimer’s patients and directly linked to memory and thinking impairments.
In the end, the findings show that people who regularly read and write have a markedly slower decline in memory than people who don’t; the latter had a 48% faster decline in memory than people who spent what’s described as an “average” amount of time with the written word. As Koren explains, part of the reason for this is that reading and writing keeps the brain more actively engaged than activities like, for example, watching TV:
Reading gives our brains a workout because comprehending text requires more mental energy than, for example, processing an image on a television screen. Reading exercises our working memory, which actively processes and stores new information as it comes. Eventually, that information gets transferred into long-term memory, where our understanding of any given material deepens. Writing can be likened to practice: the more we rehearse the perfect squat, the better our form becomes, tightening all the right muscles. Writing helps us consolidate new information for the times we may need to recall it, which boosts our memory skills.
As Koren also points out, people who are shelling out money for websites and apps that supposedly offer specialized brain training might be overcomplicating things for themselves—no need to bother with the odiously-termed “brain gyms” when you can just pick up a book.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.