How reading books helps fight Alzheimer's disease

by Nicky Pellegrino / 21 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Reading Alzheimer's

Photo/Getty Images

Aside from the pleasure it gives, reading staves off Alzheimer’s and helps make your personality shine. 

Reading this is good for your health. Choose to relax with a novel later and you’ll also be doing yourself some good – it may even help you live longer and stay smarter.

Robert Wilson has been looking at the effects of reading on the human brain. His research is based on longitudinal studies in elderly people, measuring their memory and thinking, and it includes an examination of their brains after they have died.

“We discovered early on that those who read more are less likely to develop cognitive decline,” says Wilson, a professor of neurological sciences at Chicago’s Rush University.

Looking at mentally stimulating activities throughout subjects' lifetimes, he found the rate of cognitive decline was reduced by about a third in people with frequent mental activity, compared with the average. And in those with infrequent activity, the decline was nearly 50% faster than average. “So the more you read, the better,” says Wilson.

Reading is an active pursuit that demands a variety of intellectual abilities and involves the working memory. “We don’t really go into whether they’re reading comic books or War and Peace, and there isn’t a lot of hard data on that, but I think the more challenging it is, the better,” says Wilson.

One of his most interesting findings is that 30-40% of people with no obvious memory or thinking problems at the time of their death turned out to have the plaques and tangles in their brains that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Wilson thinks that lifelong intellectual activity, and reading in particular, helped delay the disease expressing itself in these individuals.

“The brain is an activity-dependent organ, and what you do with it during life affects how it develops. Almost everyone by the age of 80 has got a few of these pathologies going on in their brain. It’s a question of how well it is prepared for the onslaught.”

His research is now focused on modifiable risks for cognitive decline. Factors such as suffering from depression and having a sense of purpose have been related to how well thinking power is maintained through later life.

“But reading and intellectual activity are a big factor,” he says. “We think reading is a prototype of things that are good for you. The research won’t yet tell you what sort of reading or how much. So what is important is doing intellectual activities you enjoy and can sustain.”

You don’t necessarily have to read for long spells to get some benefits. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that just six minutes can reduce stress levels by up to two-thirds. And a Yale University study found a relationship between reading and longevity in people over 50 – the key to living longer is to have your nose in a novel for more than three and a half hours a week.

There is also evidence that reading stories may improve your personality. Canadian research using brain imaging has revealed different brain activity and higher empathy in those who read fiction.

“Everyone assumes reading is good for you,” says Keith Oatley, an award-winning novelist and emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. “What we did was turn that into a question: if it’s good for you, then in what way? We started to find all these effects, including an increase in empathy.”

The more you read, the more you are able to understand others. Which genre you favour makes a difference: romance and detective novels are more effective than family sagas and sci-fi. Oatley says literary fiction, focused on the inner lives of its characters, is probably better than plot-driven novels. The important thing is having an emotional involvement with the story, using your imagination and putting yourself in a character’s shoes.

Also, the fact that it is fiction is significant. Tests using either Anton Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog or a non-fictionalised form of it that was still engaging but not artistic found shifts in the personalities of those who read the original. Interestingly, each changed in a different way.

“Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called ‘entertainment’,” says Oatley. “I think there is also something more important going on.”

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Lecretia Seales' widower makes his case for death with dignity
103655 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Health

Lecretia Seales' widower makes his case for death…

by Matt Vickers

Ahead of a report back on the End of Life Choice Bill, Matt Vickers, widower of assisted dying advocate Lecretia Seales makes his case.

Read more
Sid at the French Café to host a special lunch to support Christchurch victims
103751 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Sid at the French Café to host a special lunch to…

by Metro

A special luncheon will be held to raise money in support of the victims and families affected by the Christchurch mosque shooting.

Read more
Tech giants accused of inciting violence for hosting mosque shooter's livestream
103603 2019-03-19 10:23:15Z Tech

Tech giants accused of inciting violence for hosti…

by Vomle Springford

Facebook, Google and other tech platforms are being condemned for hosting the Christchurch shooter's video.

Read more
'We've failed miserably': Critics condemn spy agencies' surveillance strategy
103607 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Crime

'We've failed miserably': Critics condemn spy agen…

by Phil Pennington

Former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said the response to Muslims over what they see as a growing threat to them was "diabolical".

Read more
Party leaders saying little on gun law reform
103601 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Party leaders saying little on gun law reform

by Gia Garrick

Governing parties are giving no clues on how the country's gun laws will change following Friday's terror attack in Christchurch.

Read more
Test of faith: Does New Zealand have anything to fear from radical Islam?
70722 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

Test of faith: Does New Zealand have anything to f…

by Joanna Wane

Almost three years ago, the Muslim community in Auckland welcomed me into their world with warmth, trust and open arms.

Read more
Saziah Bashir: 4 things you should do following the Christchurch terror attack
103634 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

Saziah Bashir: 4 things you should do following th…

by Saziah Bashir

What can we do? Where to from here? People have to recognise the Muslim community is grieving.

Read more
Christchurch shooting: How the world is reacting to the terror attack
103651 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z World

Christchurch shooting: How the world is reacting t…

by Ryan J Holder

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, there is grief, despair, anger and a righteous sense that things need to change.

Read more