Research shows that reading improves memory and reduces the risk of dementia. Reading may even be better for brain health than other mental activities.
Reading every day may reduce dementia risk, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in July 2018.
Researchers at Hong Kong’s Elderly Health Centres tracked more than 15,000 people ages 65 and older for five years. All of the participants were dementia-free at the study’s conception.
Dementia risk was significantly lower among those who reported daily participation in intellectual activities, like reading books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as playing board games. The benefit was independent of other health problems, lifestyle factors (fruit and vegetable intake, exercise, smoking, etc.), demographics and socioeconomic status, according to researchers.
Research on the effects of brain-stimulating activities back up the memory-boosting benefits of reading. The 2013 study, published in the journal Neurology, found that life-long readers were better protected against Lewy bodies, amyloid burden, and tangles over the 6-year study. Reading into old age also reduced memory decline by more than 30 percent, compared to other forms of mental activity.
Reading and brain health: It’s never too late to get into books
It’s never too late to start reading and reap the brain benefits. According to the Hong Kong study, even when individuals initiated a reading regimen later in life, the impact was still significant enough to delay or prevent dementia.
What about reading after a dementia diagnosis?
“Don’t stop reading,” said Marina Guitart, a psychologist and coordinator of the Day Care Unit at Fundació ACE in Barcelona, Spain. Many people with dementia retain their ability to read, but may lose focus or are easily fatigued. They may quickly quit reading because of the effort involved in keeping the thread of the story.
“But reading every day helps preserve language and memory longer,” said Guitart.
The psychologist has several tips on how to encourage people with dementia to read regularly.
Guidance for caregivers and families to encourage reading
(Source: Fundació ACE)
- Read alongside people with dementia.
- Choose reading materials wisely: Books with photos, clear, large text, and humor work best.
- When reading, write down notes about the plot for easy review.
- Make sure books and newspapers are accessible in the home.
- Write daily notes for those with dementia in short, clear handwriting.
This year, occupational therapists at Fundació ACE in Barcelona, Spain put these tips to use. The team initiated a group-reading activity at their drop-in centers for people with mild dementia.
“At first, our members were not capable of reading a whole book alone. Through this guided activity they have returned to enjoy reading,” said Guitart.
Every time members started a new reading session, an occupational therapist reviewed the plot to bring them up to speed and reduce any frustration. Maribel Vera, an occupational therapist at the Fundació ACE Day Care Unit, said this strategy can easily be replicated by family members and caregivers at home.
“While reading, it would be useful to write down notes in a notebook on the events that take place in the story, so that each time they pick up the book they can check the notes. This way, they will avoid the feeling of not knowing what they are reading, or losing the plot,” said Vera.
Guitart and Vera suggest selecting reading material that is most appropriate for each stage of dementia.
- For those with mild dementia, short novels, short stories or news articles are ideal.
- For the moderate phase, short poetry works better.
- As the disease enters its advanced stage, familiar proverbs resonate best. For example, “No man is an island” or “Fortune favors the bold.”
In the case of the Fundació Ace reading group, “we chose a short, easy-to-read novel with touches of humor,” Guitart said. This better engaged the members.
Which Books Are Best for People With Dementia?
In general, books that incorporate both pictures and related text can help readers retain focus longer, according to a 2016 study conducted at Essex Meadows Health Center in Essex Meadows Health Center, Essex, Connecticut, (EMHC).
“We discovered that interspersing clear, intriguing photographs reflecting the content of the corresponding page was instrumental in sustaining a reader’s focus,” wrote Dr. Peter S. Dixon and Speech-Language Pathologist Susan Ostrowski in a 2017 issue of iAdvance Senior Care.
The researchers proposed an ideal book format for dementia patients: Large margins, the main topic printed in bold, a photo, and 10-15 lines of text. This configuration resulted in less brain strain amongst the study’s participants which lead to longer reading times.
“The text, photo, and title drew from different areas of the mind and were synergistic in serving to focus and keep the reader’s attention,” Dixon and Ostrowski wrote.
The study’s two researchers went on the publish a book that matched these metrics to better serve people with dementia. The book is aptly titled “Book for People with Dementia: Masters of Comedy.”
Jump-starting a reading regimen for dementia patients may not be easy, but has tangible benefits at day’s end, according to Guitart. Despite a rough start, the Fundació Ace reading group eventually began to soar.
“Our members exchanged opinions and impressions of what they were reading, actively participated and enjoyed the company,” Guitart said.
Encouraged to pick up a book? What are some of your favorite things to read? Comment below.