Reading for pleasure can boost memory in older people

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In a study from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, scientists found that reading may help preserve memory skills as people—and their brains—grow older.

One of these mental abilities is episodic memory, or memory for events, which allows us to remember what happened in previous chapters of a book and to make sense of the ongoing story.

Another ability is working memory, the capacity to hold things in our minds as we engage in other mental processes. Working memory helps us keep track of things that happened in recent paragraphs as we continue reading.

Both episodic memory and working memory tend to decline as we get older, but habitual readers routinely practice these skills in different contexts.

In the study, researchers tested the link between reading and memory. They selected books from the Champaign Public Library’s Adult Literacy Services.

The research team distributed these books to older adult participants in the local community via iPads loaned out for the duration of the study.

The iPads were also preloaded with a custom app that allowed participants to track their reading progress and answer additional questionnaires.

Participants read for 90 minutes a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. A separate active control group completed word puzzles on their iPads instead of reading while tracking their progress with the same custom app.

At the start of the study, participants came to The Adult Learning Lab at the Beckman Institute, where they were assessed for different cognitive skills, including working and episodic memory, as well as other verbal and reading skills.

They were tested on these skills again at the end of the eight weeks.

The team found in comparison to the puzzle group, the group that read books for eight weeks showed big improvements in working memory and episodic memory.

In other words, the study demonstrated that regular, engaged reading strengthened older adults’ memory skills.

The team says the causal linkage between reading and memory opens several new avenues for future treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Future work could explore the longer-term benefits of reading or the possibility of tailoring a reading treatment to an individual’s personal taste in books.

For now, however, the message is clear. How can we stay mentally sharp as we age? Read a book.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about how the Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and strawberries could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about antioxidants that could help reduce dementia risk and flavonoid-rich foods that could improve survival in Parkinson’s.

The study was conducted by Liz Stine-Morrow et al and published in Frontiers in Psychology.

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