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Reading or Writing a Book Helps Avoid Memory Loss

Biff Barnes

We just discovered another reason to love reading and writing.

Courtesy of Puuikibeach under Creative Commons

The American Academy of Neurology just released a statement which says, “New research suggests that reading books, writing and participating in brain-stimulating activities at any age may preserve memory.”

Wow! That’s big, especially when you realize that the National Council on Aging reports that 42% of older Americans are very or somewhat worried about memory loss.

The research cited in the statement is a study titled Life-Span Cognitive Activity, Neuropathologic Burden, And Cognitive Aging by Robert S. Wilson of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. The American Academy of Neurology statement reported that Wilson and his colleagues studied

…294 people who were given tests that measured memory and thinking every year for about six years before their deaths at an average age of 89. They also answered a questionnaire about whether they read books, wrote and participated in other mentally stimulating activities during childhood, adolescence, middle age and at their current age.

After they died, their brains were examined at autopsy for evidence of the physical signs of dementia, such as lesions, brain plaques and tangles.

Those who had a history of reading and writing throughout their lives had a slower rate of decline in memory than those who did not.

The research found that people who participated in mentally stimulating activities both early and late in life had a slower rate of decline in memory compared to those who did not participate in such activities across their lifetime, after adjusting for differing levels of plaques and tangles in the brain. Mental activity accounted for nearly 15 percent of the difference in decline beyond what is explained by plaques and tangles in the brain.

"Based on this, we shouldn't underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents," said Wilson.

The blog Surprising Science explains why reading and writing are so important in the prevention of memory loss:

Reading gives our brains a workout because comprehending text requires more mental energy than, for example, processing an image on a television screen. Reading exercises our working memory, which actively processes and stores new information as it comes. Eventually, that information gets transferred into long-term memory, where our understanding of any given material deepens. Writing can be likened to practice: the more we rehearse the perfect squat, the better our form becomes, tightening all the right muscles. Writing helps us consolidate new information for the times we may need to recall it, which boosts our memory skills.

If you are young enough to dismiss issues like memory loss, not so fast. A 2009 study by Timothy A. Salthouse of the University of Virginia found that of 2,000 healthy individuals aged 18 to 60 found that mental agility peaks at 22. By 27, mental processes like reasoning, spatial visualization and speed of thought began to decline.

So whatever your age, sit down regularly with a good book, or better yet, write one.