Sitting down to dinner with a good book on my table stand after a long day of work is one of the highlights of my day. And on days when I don’t work, it’s a joy to be able to read anytime that I feel like.
Needless to say, I’m an avid reader; especially fiction. But there is an interesting thing that happens when a person reads fiction.
Reading sends you off into a world of fantasy. It introduces new concepts and ideas, and let’s your imagination run wild as you try to guess where each twist and turn will take you. Not only that, but you have to learn about an entire cast of characters. Each event has to be committed to memory. Something as simple as a man who scratches his head could be the deciding clue.
Well, it turns out that the mental activity you engage in while reading helps preserve brain health and stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
A study published in the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal, Neurology, found that people involved in activities like reading books, visiting libraries and writing letters have a slower rate of decline in memory compared to those who don’t participate in these activities.
In fact, in older adults, the rate of mental decline was 32% lower in people with frequent late-life mental activity compared to those who had an average amount of it. Conversely, in those who seldom engaged in late-life mental activities, mental decline increased by 48% compared to those who had an average amount.
This isn’t the first or last study finding that shows you can help preserve brain function, even when you take up things like reading and writing later in life.
But there are other things that can help too.
Stretch Your Memory to Expand Your Brain
Visual art therapy, or simply viewing art, is often used to help improve cognitive function in people with mild cognitive decline or dementia. But it can also be useful when it comes to preventing memory problems to start with.
The key is to actually analyze and think about the art. Take a close look at it and see what you notice. Then, turn away from it and try to remember everything you observed. Try and be very detailed. For example, maybe you viewed a painting and saw the sky. Was it a sunny sky? A cloudy sky? A nighttime sky?
Perhaps there was a girl in the image. What color was her hair and clothing? Was she wearing a dress; or a blouse and with a skirt, pants or shorts? Was she smiling? Laughing? Serious? Sad? Thoughtful?
After you’ve taken inventory of your memory, look at the artwork again. What did you miss?
The thing is, you don’t even have to be in an art museum to do this. It can be anywhere in your world. If you are driving, or even just walking, be aware of what you see. Notice everything and try to commit it to memory. Then test your memory the next time you drive or walk that route.
You can also have fun with it.
Some people like to play word games with license plates. You might see in your neighborhood a plate that says I32- IQZ. It could easily be translated into something along the lines of “IQ is 132.” A plate that reads O95-LKE might translate to “95 likes.”
It’s just a game, but when you play it, it expands your cognitive abilities at the same time. (And it’s amazingly satisfying when, a few days later, you happen to spot a license plate you previously “translated!”)
Having Problems Remembering Names?
One time my father went to some kind of memory conference, just for the heck of it. The speaker was introduced to hundreds of attendees. And a few hours later, he still remembered my father’s name.
What the speaker did was use mental “implants” to remember names. It is surprisingly effective, because the brain remembers images and memories better than it remembers words.
For instance, there are a lot of ways you can remember the name “Shelly.” She can be a tiny seashell on the beach, or the giant seashell depicted on the Shell gas station sign.
Change the letters just a little bit to the name “Shelby,” and she or he is a vintage Shelby Mustang.
And while I’m no rock star, you might associate my first name with something as exciting as the old song Space Oddity, by David Bowie.
It’s an amazingly simple trick. Plus, if you keep repeating the name over and over again in your head, it is more likely to be readily available to you later.
There are a lot of simple ways you can improve your memory. Eating well, getting plenty of physical activity and toning down your stress levels are a big part of that.
But your daily activities – reading, writing, memorizing, word games and visualization can also play a very large role. So read a fantastical book! Go to the museum. Play your own personal brain games and feel free to put your mental abilities to the test.
Your brain will love you for the challenges.
Wilson RS, Boyle PA, Yu L, Barnes LL, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging. Neurology. 2013 Jul 23;81(4):314-21.
Chang YH, Wu IC, Hsiung CA. Reading activity prevents long-term decline in cognitive function in older people: evidence from a 14-year longitudinal study. Int Psychogeriatr. 2021 Jan;33(1):63-74.
Hughes TF, Chang CC, Vander Bilt J, Ganguli M. Engagement in reading and hobbies and risk of incident dementia: the MoVIES project. Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen. 2010 Aug;25(5):432-8.
Masika GM, Yu DSF, Li PWC. Visual art therapy as a treatment option for cognitive decline among older adults. A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Adv Nurs. 2020 Mar 23. Epub ahead of print. Lee R, Wong J, Lit Shoon W, Gandhi M, Lei F, et al. Art therapy for the prevention of cognitive decline. Arts Psychother. 2019;64:20-25.