Parents and educators alike have long tried to get children to spend more time reading. So far, their efforts have do not seem to have been particularly effective; a 2007 report by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) found that less than a third of 13 year-olds read everyday. This trend was also observed in older age groups; the same study noted that those aged 15 to 24 read only nine minutes daily, while nearly half of adults in the 18 to 24 age bracket never read for pleasure. It’s reasonable to assume that this disinterest in reading will continue as these individuals get older.
There is plenty of reason to be concerned about these findings. For one thing, the same NEA report linked habitual reading with greater success later in life; specifically, those who read often enjoy better careers and higher incomes than those that eschew books. These may not be the only reasons to read more frequently; according to recent studies, cracking open a book may not only improve the inner functions of the brain, but also help ward off cognitive dementia.
Reading About Pompeii
In late 2013, researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, GA recorded the effects of reading on a small group of volunteers. The scientists asked twelve students to read certain passages of Pompeii, a 2003 thriller authored by Robert Harris. For the first five days of the study, each student underwent an fMRI brain scan, which were performed during the morning hours. Following this initial step, the volunteers were asked to read nine predetermined sections from the novel. Each section consisted of a total of thirty pages, which were to be read every evening over a span of nine days.
During this nine day period, students were given morning quizzes regarding the previous night’s reading. This was to ensure that the students had actually read their assigned passages. Upon passing the quiz, fMRI scans were performed on each participant, recording activity in the various areas of the subjects’ brains. After these nine days had passed, the subjects underwent scans each morning for the next five days.
All of these scans revealed a very interesting reaction inside the brain’s left temporal cortex. Among other functions, the left temporal cortex plays a large role in how the brain perceives auditory input. The research team noticed that this area exhibited an increased amount of connectivity, a development that persisted in the five days after the students completed their reading assignments. In other words, the scans found that reading altered nerve cell behavior in this section of the brain. This essentially has the effect of giving the brain a bit of a mental workout.
According to the Emory scientists, the students’ brain scans indicate that avid reading can create certain sensations within the body, allowing readers to mentally place themselves in the body of a book’s protagonist. Previous research has unearthed similar responses regarding other activities. For example, thinking often about running has also been found to stimulate nerve cells in the left temporal cortex. These same cells are likewise affected by the actual act of running.
Preserving Brain Health?
As the body ages, the brain becomes more susceptible to ravages of dementia. Dementia itself is not an illness. Rather, it is a term used to describe the effects of diseases that erode the brain’s ability to recall and process information. By far the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which is responsible for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases.
Most dementia diagnoses occur in seniors; of the 5.2 million Americans with Alzheimer’s, approximately 5 million are aged 65 and older. Making dementia even more of a public health risk is its increasing prevalence with age; a study released in 2007 found that 5% of Americans aged 71 to 79 had dementia, a figure which swelled to over 37% for those over 90.
While dementia is major problem for millions of seniors, leading a healthy lifestyle can help reduce dementia risk. A recent report argued that such a lifestyle could include reading on a regular basis. Authored by a research team from Rush University Medical Center, this study monitored the cognitive health of a total of 294 older adults. Each participant agreed to be studied for the remaining years of their lives; they also allowed the researchers to study their brains after they died.
After observing their subjects for an average of six years, the Rush University team found that reading could help stymie the development of dementia (this was also true of other activities that stimulated the brain, such as writing or playing chess). Subjects who read frequently, for example, scored better on memory tests than those who did not. In addition, the onset of dementia occurred at a slower rate in these adults.
This correlation was noticed even in those who avoided “exercising” their minds well into adulthood; compared to those with average levels of mental activity, adults who took on brain-utilizing hobbies later in life reduced their incidence of cognitive decline by 32%. On the flip side of the coin, subjects who shunned reading and other mentally healthy activities developed cognitive issues 48% faster than average.
The importance of mental workouts was also supported by post-mortem examination of the volunteers’ brains. The study noted that some subjects either exhibited no signs of Alzheimer’s or suffered a more gradual onset of symptoms, even though their brains had been damaged by the disease. These same subjects regularly engaged in strenuous mental activities, strongly indicating that these habits had helped prevent Alzheimer’s from crippling their health.
Reading has always been viewed as a worthwhile hobby, a notion that has been given a boost thanks to the recent efforts of medical researchers. Challenging as it may be, flipping off the TV and picking up a book could very well yield lasting rewards.