Updated July 2021
Seniors who read often enjoy much more than just a good story. Scientific studies have found many benefits of reading for older adults. These include everything from reducing stress and enhancing sleep to improving memory circuits, sharpening decision-making and possibly even delaying the onset of dementia.
These top five mental benefits of reading demonstrate why good senior reading habits help preserve mental faculties, enabling people to live independently longer.
1. Enhancing Memory
A study of 294 seniors published in Neurology found that those who engaged in mentally simulating activities such as reading across their life-span had slower rates of memory decline compared to those who did not. Engaging in frequent cognitive activity later in life reduced the rate of decline by 32 percent.
Reading exercises your memory. This is critical to the short-term recall of everyday events. Regular mental workouts through reading can strengthen the brain’s neural network. This helps your mind become more receptive to learning and memory retention.
2. Sharpening Decision-Making Skills
Reading can improve the analytical and reasoning power seniors need to solve problems. This is an ability known as fluid intelligence that declines throughout adulthood. A major study of Americans aged 25-74 found that, regardless of age, those who routinely did more to challenge their brains through such activities as reading did better on fluid intelligence tests than their counterparts.
3. Delaying Onset of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Additional research determined that adults in their 70s who engaged in mentally intense hobbies, such as reading, from ages 20-60 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. In an article published by USA TODAY, Dr. Zaven Khachaturian, senior science adviser to the Alzheimer’s Association, says that brain-challenging activities build a reserve of neuronal connections. This makes it take longer for the Alzheimer’s process to destroy enough neurons for Alzheimer’s symptoms to emerge.
Another study of participants from the Rush University Aging and Memory Project found that more frequent mental activities, including reading, help preserve brain structures important to cognition in late life.
4. Reducing Stress and Anxiety
When it comes to unwinding, getting lost in a good book beats listening to music, having a cup of coffee, or going for a walk. That’s according to research conducted at Mindlab International at the University of Sussex. It only took six minutes for the heart rate and muscle tension of participants to relax once they dove into a book. That means the mental benefits of reading can literally help improve your quality of life.
Reading can also help to relieve anxiety. Research from the University of Toronto found that people who read frequently are less likely to act impulsively. They were also more likely to think before reacting to things. This means frequent readers are better equipped to process information, be prepared for life’s uncertainties, and reduce their anxiety.
5. Sleeping Better
Reading in bed has long been considered a surefire way to fall asleep. The Mayo Clinic confirms this. They state that creating a bedtime ritual, such as reading, signals the body that it’s time for sleep.
This healthy sleeping habit induces shut-eye better than falling asleep in front of a television screen or other electronic device. In fact, these devices have been proven to keep people awake longer or even disrupt their rest. So, swap your TV show for a good book and enjoy drifting off easier.
Large Print Books for Seniors and Other Reading Aids
While there are numerous mental benefits to reading, seniors may face certain obstacles when it comes to indulging in the pastime. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, approximately 15.2% of Americans aged 75 years or older have experienced some kind of vision loss.
Thankfully, there are plenty of options that make reading for seniors still accessible despite these challenges. Many publishers now offer large print books for seniors and those with vision problems. These are typically printed in 16 to 18-point size font (compared to the regular print, which is between 10-12 point). You can check your local library for large print options or shop online for them.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to restock your entire bookcase, there are other reading aids for seniors available. These include e-readers: a lightweight electronic alternative to printed books. These allow you to adjust the size of font on the screen to suit your needs. They can also be used to access a variety of books, magazines, and other publications.
However, while these do use e-inks, which try to mimic the appearance of the printed word, many still emit blue light. This can make falling asleep more difficult, just as the TV screen and other electronic devices do. Therefore, you may prefer to purchase a special book magnifying glass and continue to enjoy the books you already own. These are available to purchase online.
As people age, they might tend to read less and turn on the TV instead. Given the proven health benefits of reading, however, you may want to consider trading in the remote for a good book instead.