A Deceptively Simple Strategy For Keeping Mentally Sharp In Late Life

Reading a book
Gotta stay sharp … and this is just the way to do it!

Baby boomers are aging, and they’re worried about it. Americans spend more than a billion dollars per year on cognitive training programs that promise to stave off age-related declines in mental abilities like memory, reaction time, and focus. But evidence on the benefits of these programs is scarce, and the products may be overshadowing a deceptively simple alternative: reading. Psychologists Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, Erika Hussey, and Shukhan Ng believe that literacy may be an important and underutilized strategy for maintaining cognitive ability in late life, as they write in a review of research for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

PIBBS cover
The Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, or FABBS, with SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, publishes the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. This annual journal features research findings in the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior that are applicable to nearly every area of public policy. The second issue features 22 articles focused on cognitive psychology focused on topics including education, health, evaluating and mitigating risk, law, and improving society.

As people reach middle age and older, some mental abilities decline, especially those researchers call “mental mechanics,” like short-term memory, attention, reaction time, and speed. In contrast, “crystalized abilities” like acquired knowledge and information remain stable or even increase, peaking in mid-life. It’s not entirely clear why mental mechanics decline more than crystalized abilities, but researchers have found that strategies like exercising and participating in rich intellectual experiences can help slow that decline. Stine-Morrow says that the most beneficial mental activities are those that find a “sweet spot where we are challenged but not overwhelmed,” and reading fits that bill.

Studies have long shown that reading can build crystallized abilities by adding to a person’s knowledge base. But according to Stine-Morrow and colleagues, “the more startling possibility is that literacy may have the potential to impact attention, executive control, and other sorts of fluid abilities,” possibly delaying the decline of these abilities in late life. The researchers base this theory on studies showing that reading is a “whole-brain mental exercise.” It stimulates multiple parts of the brain involved in perception, action, and emotion. Reading also engages executive functioning skills like attention and working memory, and is linked to better memory, visual recognition, and language processing. Studies show that literate people have higher levels of these skills than people who have had normal brain development but no opportunity to learn how to read.

Drawn from

“The Potential for Literacy to Shape Lifelong Cognitive Health” by Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow, Erika K. Hussey and Shukhan Ng

Furthermore, studies document lifelong benefits of bilingualism on mental mechanics. Those benefits probably accrue because managing two language systems requires the brain to stay focused on relevant information, filter out irrelevant information, and switch between the two systems seamlessly. Studies suggest that bilingualism improves “functional connectivity,” the transfer of information from one part of the brain to another, and enhances executive functioning. In fact, bilinguals experience less age-related declines in executive functioning, and are diagnosed with dementia three to four years later than their monolingual peers.

Based on these findings, the authors call for more research exploring the potential link between reading and mental mechanics in mid and late life. They also hope to see more accessible and effective adult education for the 14 percent of the adult population with low literacy levels. And for those baby boomers wondering how to stay sharp, Stine-Morrow recommends “a daily diet of activities that involve exercise, stimulating work and play, learning new things, interactions with people that you enjoy — and some time with a book!”

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Suzanne Bouffard

Suzanne Bouffard is a writer with a passion for making social science research accessible to the general public. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Parents, the Harvard Education Letter, and other outlets, and she is the winner of a 2013 Solutions Journalism Network grant. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Duke University.

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