Reading for pleasure strengthens memory in older people

Reading – Literacy cultivation can occur at any age and can be more easily incorporated into the daily routine than formal education.

In general terms, cognition in adulthood is often characterized as a dynamic change in two competing forces. Fluidity (or “mental mechanics”), the ability to rapidly transform information and effectively control attention to respond to changing task demands, shows a monotonic decline throughout adulthood as a consequence of senescence processes genetically mediated. Crystallized capacity based on knowledge and acculturation increases as a consequence of experience. Developmental patterns of change in the psychometric assessment of abilities are of particular interest to the extent that these abilities predict significant everyday outcomes.

A team of researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology has discovered another reason to love reading: it can help preserve memory as people – and their brains – age.


One of these mental abilities is episodic memory, or event memory, which allows us to recall what happened in previous chapters of a book and make sense of the ongoing story. Another ability is working memory, the ability to hold things in mind while we perform other mental processes.

Both episodic and working memory tends to decline as we age, but regular readers routinely practice these skills in different contexts.

A mystery surrounding the relationship between reading and memory is whether it is reading that helps improve memory or whether good working memory capacity improves reading comprehension skills. Knowing the direction of causation will have important implications for the types of treatments that can help preserve memory throughout life.

Stine-Morrow and the interdisciplinary team, which included Beckman researchers Dr. Daniel Llano, Professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, and Aron Barbey, Professor of Psychology, conducted a study to test the causal relationship between reading and memory. To get started, they needed a collection of interesting and engaging books, the kind that grabs you, and they decided to turn to the experts at Champaign Public Library Adult Literacy Services.

The research team distributed these books to older adult participants in the local community via loaner iPads for the duration of the study. They also came preloaded with a custom app that allowed participants to track their reading progress and answer additional quizzes. The participants read 90 minutes a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. An active control group completed word puzzles instead of reading while tracking their progress with the same personalized app.

At the start of the study, the participants attended the Beckman Institute’s Adult Learning Lab, where they were tested for a variety of cognitive skills, including working and episodic memory, as well as other reading and verbal skills. At the end of eight weeks, they were reassessed.

The results were incontrovertible: Compared to the puzzle group, the group that read books for eight weeks showed significant improvements in working memory and episodic memory. In other words, the study showed that regular, engaged reading bolstered older adults’ memory abilities.

The causal relationship between reading and memory opens new avenues for future treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Future work could explore the long-term benefits of reading or the possibility of adopting a reading treatment to the personal tastes of each individual.

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