Bookworms Have Better Brains in Old Age

ThinkStock / ThinkStock

For some, being lost in a book is better than watching a movie. And although it might seem that bookworms let the world pass them by while their noses are stuck in a book, their love of reading will serve them well: According to a new study from the July issue of Neurology, readers and other mentally active folks have boosted brainpower in old age.    

"Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as [reading, writing, and playing with puzzles] across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age," says study co-author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, senior neuropsychologist at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.

For six years prior to their deaths, 294 people took cognitive tests, which examined their memory and clear thinking. The subjects also recounted how frequently they exercised their brains by reading a newspaper or book (or favorite blog, ah hem); writing a letter; playing a thinking game like chess or Sudoku; or visiting a museum or theater. All the subjects, part of the Rush Memory and Aging Process, donated their brains to science so that the researchers could examine them after death. (Currently, the only way to definitively determine if someone suffers from Alzheimer's is to look at the brain post-mortem for tangles, lesions, and plaques, hallmarks of the disease.)

Subjects who read, wrote, and played puzzles experienced fewer cognitive problems; what's even more interesting is that mental activities stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Even if their brains displayed plaques, tangles, and lesions, people who exercised their brains did not exhibit behaviors of Alzheimer's.

“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," Wilson says.

Not a big reader? Never fear—it’s not too late to start. The study finds that people who challenged themselves later in life lowered cognitive deficits by 32 percent. The bad news: People who didn’t engage in mental acrobatics experienced cognitive decline 48 percent faster.