Reading as a protective factor for cognition in aging

Maintaining a frequency of reading and writing habits helps to preserve the connectivity of our stories as we age

Like Comment
Read the paper

The way we tell our stories can lose complexity as we age, but maintaining regular reading and writing habits helps to preserve that complexity. Our latest study - Reading and writing habits compensate for aging effects in speech connectedness, published this week on npj Science of Learning - showed that reading and writing habits offset the effect of aging in a sample of low-educated older adults.

We collected data from 118 Brazilian adults and older adults mostly with a low level of education and low socioeconomic status. We asked the participants about their frequency of weekly reading and writing habits (never, rarely, a few days a week, one day a week, or every day) in different media (magazines, books, newspapers, social networks), both in printed and digital supports and analyzed their oral narratives, representing them as word trajectory graphs. We then related reading and writing habits with measures extracted from speech structure analysis, that is, measures of connectivity.

Two results stood out, one related to the pattern of speech connectivity throughout life, and the other related to the fundamental role of reading and writing habits throughout life. Regarding the first, we found an interesting pattern of connection of speech throughout life: the short-range recurrences that decrease during children's literacy increase with advancing age, making the speech of the elderly more repetitive; the ability to produce a well-connected narrative, which increases throughout the school years, decreases in older adults. Regarding the second, we found that the habit of reading and writing compensated for the effect of aging in a sample of elderly adults predominantly with low education and socioeconomic status, which has important implications for the maintenance of cognitive activity in aging and emphasizes the protective effect of reading and writing throughout life.

These results are in line with the so-called cognitive reserve, an expression used to refer to the idea that activities that stimulate the brain are linked to an increase in resilience to changes in cognitive processing that come with aging or with brain damage other words, cognitive reserve is the set of cognitive resources that a person acquires throughout their life, and that provides protection against aging and brain damage.

Our finding is especially significant in a country where illiteracy and low schooling are still a reality. According to the IBGE (the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), 7% of the population has no education, and more than 50% of Brazilians aged 25 and over have not completed basic education. With the increase in life expectancy around the world and, consequently, in dementia rates, which are proportionately higher in countries with low education and low socioeconomic status, there is a strong need for preventive measures and public policies with a focus on formal education, fostering reading and writing habits, as well as training and/or linguistic-cognitive stimulation in aging. This is even more urgent in developing countries, where a significant part of the elderly population is not literate or has low education and low socioeconomic status. In this sense, encouraging reading and writing could mitigate the impact of low education and low income on the cognition of older adults, acting as a preventive measure and bringing them better living conditions and well-being.

Taken together, the results brought by our study demonstrate the relevance of investing in reading and writing in developing countries such as Brazil so to mitigate the effect of low schooling on the cognition of older adults. And it is never too late to start!

To learn more, please read our scientific article published at npj Science of Learning.

Written by Bárbara Malcorra.