Reading Rewards

Whether it’s books, magazines, or correspondence — studies show that reading offers protections against dementia as people age

Learning to read is a revelatory experience for children. They discover that when certain letters of the alphabet go together, those letters become words that form sentences, revealing infinite possibilities. That initial thrill of reading can last a lifetime, and it can protect and improve the wellbeing of older adults in many different ways.

Reading improves memory, concentration, and stress levels. “It exercises the brain because you have to process and assess what you’re reading and also keep track of multiple characters,” says Erin Collins, adult services librarian at the Winnetka-Northfield Public Library. “It can be an escape because it puts you in a focused mindset so you won’t be thinking about what is stressing you.”

Reading also enhances people’s ability to empathize. “Books can put you in the perspective of the author or a character and enlighten you about people in different situations, in different time periods and different places,” Collins says.

Researchers at RUSH University Medical Center’s Memory and Aging Project have been studying the cognitive effects of reading for years.

One study gave memory tests to 294 men and women, primarily in their 80s. The participants also answered questions about how often they read books, visited libraries, and wrote letters. Researchers were looking for specific reasons why people develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Participants agreed to have their brains autopsied postmortem, and researchers continued their study there, looking for signs of dementia such as brain plaques.

People who read and stayed cognitively active, the researchers found, did develop the brain plaques. However, they experienced cognitive clinical decline much later than those who did not participate in cognitive activities such as reading.

“We think that reading builds up the brain structure and function that allows people to withstand the pathologies and stave off the onset of cognitive decline for many years,” says study author Robert Wilson, PhD, neuropsychologist in the RUSH Alzheimer’s Disease Center and professor in the department of neurological sciences at RUSH University Medical Center. “That means that those people may spend a smaller proportion of their lives in a cognitively dependent state, which is a huge effect of their cognitively stimulating lifestyle. They may, in fact, die of something else before they ever develop Alzheimer’s.”

That initial study was published in 2014, in the journal Neurology, and similar lines of research continue through Rush’s Memory and Aging Project today.

“The conclusion is that on average, those who participated in intellectually stimulating activities developed Alzheimer’s disease five years later than those who were not cognitively active,” Wilson says.

Social benefits of reading

Reading’s benefits aren’t all cognitive, though. There are clear social benefits, too — especially in a society plagued by loneliness.

Half of all Americans experience a pervasive sense of loneliness, according to Vivek Murthy, MD, the U.S. Surgeon General. The loneliness epidemic correlates with a harmful impact on people’s physical and mental health, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. While reading is a solitary activity, book clubs are social and a great way to address loneliness.

Collins leads a monthly book club called Reading for a Cozy Afternoon at the North Shore Senior Center. She says the meetings are an antidote to social isolation.

The club met on Zoom during the pandemic, and video remains an option for members who no longer drive or who prefer to be home. Collins selects the novels and joins the group in person.

Occasionally the choice is a dud, but even that can spark an interesting discussion, she says. “Sometimes a person may express a unique opinion and find out that it is shared by another person, and they are not alone,” she says. “There are many ways to personalize the conversation.”

For the book club, Collins selects books that have a large print version for members with diminished vision. Some with vision issues opt to listen to audio books. And no matter the format, lively discussions ensue.

While some people continue to read throughout their lifetime, others may stop completely at some point, which could be a warning sign of cognitive issues. A primary care physician can provide an assessment or referral to a neurologist.

Still, though it’s not a perfect answer, people who read throughout their lifetime, who love to get lost in books, will likely reap the positive rewards.