During the years I was in public school, I often had a hard time falling asleep at night. That continued until I started the practise of reading before bed. That was a game changer!

Not only did it help me to fall asleep faster, but it also fostered my love for reading. To this day, most nights before bed, I read.

While my reading material was fictional in those younger years, it is mostly non-fiction now, with subject matter that relates to neuroscience and wellness. You would think that would require me to concentrate more and keep me awake.  Actually however, I find it calming; and it gets me through my accumulated stack of books that would not be read otherwise.

Whether it is first thing in the morning, the middle of the day, the evening or before bed, reading ranks high as one of the most popular hobbies among people. Of course, it is not hard to see why, either. It is engaging, educational, and relaxing yet uplifting, and it can be done alone or with others. As well, if you have a library card, it doesn’t cost you anything either.

Clearly as a young student, learning how to read is an essential skill. We learn to read so that we can read to learn. Reading is easily one of the most fundamental milestones we can possibly achieve.

Throughout life this skill is used daily, as we read signs, brochures, instructions, directions, recipes, emails, text messages, social media posts, and so much more. But as we age into our senior years, is this activity just as important? Afterall, we have spent most of our lives reading; obviously those neuropathways are in place.  What could more reading possibly do for us in a later stage of life?

It turns out that researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology had that same question. So, they conducted a study to test the causal relationship between reading and memory.

How the study worked:

  1. To begin, they needed a collection of interesting and engaging books so they contacted experts at the Champaign Public Library’s Adult Literacy Services.
  2. Older adult participants in the local community 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.
  3. The research team distributed the books to these participants via iPads loaned out for the duration of the study.
  4. The iPads were preloaded with a custom app that allowed the participants to track their reading progress and answer additional questionnaires.
  5. Participants read for 90 minutes a day, five days a week, for eight weeks.
  6. A separate, active control group of these participants completed word puzzles on their iPads instead of reading while tracking their progress with the same custom app.
  7. Each group was tested again on the cognitive skills at the end of the eight weeks.

What did they find out?

The results were undeniable. In comparison to the puzzle group, the group that read books for eight weeks showed significant improvements to their episodic and working memory.

What is the difference between these two types of memory skills?

Episodic memory (memory for events) – this form of memory allows us to remember what happened in previous chapters of a book and to make sense of the ongoing story.

Working memory (capacity to hold things in our minds as we engage in other mental processes) – this helps us keep track of things that happened in recent paragraphs as we continue reading.

As we age, both episodic memory and working memory tend to decline, but this can be offset with regular reading.  This is because these memory skills are practised, just in a different context from everyday life activity.

According to Liz Stine-Morrow, “There’s a pretty robust literature showing a relationship between working memory and both language comprehension and long-term memory. Working memory seems to decline with age, but there’s a lot of variation, especially among older adults.”

Isn’t that fascinating? To think that a simple activity that we are already programmed to do in our daily lives like regular reading, can have such a positive impact on our brain and cognitive skills at every age and stage of life is amazing! This brings hope and empowerment.

Not to mention, reading can also bring a tremendous amount of enjoyment as well as education from the knowledge we obtain. As well, many people report that reading is a wonderfully calming activity.

So, how can you stay mentally sharp as you age? There are many things you can do! My Brain Fitness programs are filled with strategies and tools to care for and to optimize your brain and cognition.

However, right now, I suggest you start by picking up a book. This is because, in the words of Lis Stine-Morrow, “Leisure reading, the kind that really sucks you in, is good for you, and it helps build the mental abilities on which reading depends.” 

To Your Fit Brain & Fit Life,