Can Reading Help My Brain Grow and Prevent Dementia?

New research suggests that reading makes us sharper and also socially-aware.

Posted Apr 11, 2018

When we read, we use many parts of our brain. We use vivid imagery as well as memory to follow a plot, or main idea. Reading can be like mental gymnastics for the brain. Recent research supports the notion that reading influences our thought processes and is a very potent form of brain training. Professor Keith Oatley, an expert in the field of reading, compared reading to being in a flight simulator: “You experience a lot of situations in a short span of time, far more so than if we went about our lives waiting for those experiences to actually happen to us.”[1] While reading may often be thought of as a solitary activity, reading may, in fact, make us more socially aware. Dr. Oatley suggests that readings good books are much like life simulators in that they allow us to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position, to take other people’s perspectives and figure out why certain characters in books behave the way they do, and to consider what would happen if we did the same in our own world.  In a way, reading leads to practicing what we encounter in the world, but it is all in our brain, which can be a good challenge for brain health.

Some studies have linked how much people read with their ability to understand empathy the ability to interpret the mental states, feelings, and emotions of others when shown photographs of faces in different emotional states [2]. These studies found that those who read more are better at interpreting social cues in their environment and, ultimately, better at understanding others. While we might think of people who are bookworms as some sort of negative stereotype (a socially-isolated loner wearing glasses, sitting in the corner reading while others are playing), reading as brain training might actually lead to better emotional processing of situations. This can be beneficial for children, teenagers, and as we enter older age. Thus, a lifetime of reading can have benefits in terms of social intelligence—something that can often get better with age.

Billionaire Warren Buffett estimates that he spends as much as 80% of his day reading [3]. Lifelong reading, especially in older age, may be one of the secrets to preserving mental ability. Some research supports this idea that reading can help improve memory. In one study, researchers tested almost 300 older adults’ memory and thinking ability every year for 6 years, and the participants answered questionnaires about their reading and writing habits, from childhood to their current age [4]. After the participants’ deaths (at an average age of 89), the researchers examined their brains for evidence of the physical signs of dementia, which typically include lesions, plaques, and neural tangles, the brain abnormalities often associated with memory lapses. Those people who reported that they read were protected against brain lesions and tangles and self-reported memory decline over the 6-year study. In addition, remaining an avid reader into old age reduced memory decline by more than 30%, compared to engaging in other forms of mental activity. Those who read the most had the fewest physical signs of dementia (of course, it could be for this reason that they kept reading later in life).

Books can be both enjoyable and powerful learning devices, especially for children. Reading is a form of brain training that begins early in life. Growing up in a household that has books can lead to big benefits. One large-scale study conducted over 20 years found that people who grow up in a house that has books are more likely to achieve higher education, something that is related to higher income and better cognitive function later in life [5]. This study found that regardless of income or education level, parents who have more books in the home will have children with higher levels of education, relative to parents who have fewer books in the home. In fact, children growing up in homes with many books average 3 years more schooling than that of children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. Also, while having a large collection of books at home was associated with children achieving more education, even having a small collection of books made a difference. I certainly remember some cherished book from my childhood that I have now rediscovered and read to my own children.  The point is not simply to have many books but to read them, and having access to books leads to reading. Given the widespread access to video-games and screen-time, and fewer actual bookstores, reading may appeal less to children as they get older, but there are big cognitive benefits to reading and getting lost in a book. It seems hard to believe, but reading may be a great way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and perhaps reading to your younger children or grandchildren may give them vital brain health. Thus, starting at an early age, exposure to books and reading can lead to good things for your brain later in life.

This topic is covered in my new book Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging

References

[1] Kaplan, S. (2016, July). Does reading fiction make you a better person? Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/07/22/do...

[2] Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., de la Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.

[3] Ward, M. (2016, November 16). Warren Buffett’s reading routine could make you smarter, science suggests. Retrieved from http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/16/warren-buffetts-reading-routine-could-mak...

[4] Wilson, R. S., Boyle, P. A., Yu, L., Barnes, L. L., Schneider, J. A., & Bennett, D. A. (2013). Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging. Neurology, 81, 314–321.

[5] Evans, M. D., Kelley, J., Sikora, J., & Treiman, D. J. (2010). Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 28, 171–197.