The Benefits of Reading for Senior Adults

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Reading is among the simplest of life’s pleasures. In a world filled with digital screens, it is way too easy to forget just how delightful it is to curl up comfortably with a good book. Perhaps J.K. Rowling explains what reading does best – “I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”

In addition, it is also easy to overlook the benefits derived by simply reading something that brings you joy. One can travel the globe, see an issue from another perspective, and learn new things without having to leave one’s home.

The Benefits of Reading for the Elderly

Scientific studies across the globe have confirmed the many benefits of reading for the elderly. As the reader’s imagination engages with the story’s details, the brain’s neural network becomes stronger – much like the way you can increase muscle strength by working out intensely.

And a study from Pew Research confirmed that 80% of elderly reading aficionados (those 65 years old or older) read primarily for pleasure. To those who have a love of reading, this statistic is likely not a surprise at all.

Reading for Seniors offers these amazing benefits –

Reading Stimulates Your Brain

As one grows older, it becomes essential to keep your brain active and engaged. These activities are required to keep the brain functioning and healthy. Reading offers a great workout for the mind. It is more neurobiologically demanding than the processes required to manage speech & images. Reading requires that the reader create a narrative that includes imagination. Reading also offers the reader complete control – to pause to ensure you understand what you are reading (obviously, this is not so easy when watching a movie, etc.)

Reading Enhances Memory Function

Reading is a memory workout that strengthens and creates new memories throughout your neural network. With each new memory created by reading, the brain creates new connections and strengthens existing network connections.  

Regular exercise of the brain can help it become more receptive to memory retention and learning. Harvard’s health blog notes that reading requires the reader to be attentive and use short-term memory and recall – two conditions that tend to decline naturally through the aging process.

A study published by the National Library of Medicine reveals that one of the benefits of reading for the elderly is that, as a mentally-stimulating activity, it slows the rate of memory decline. Further, a study from the most widely published peer-reviewed neurology journal – Neurology, notes that participating in ongoing cognitive activities – throughout one’s life and especially in later years can reduce the rate of memory decline by 32%.

Reading Reduces Stress and Anxiety

A Mindlab International study from the United Kingdom’s University of Sussex (2009) reveals that when it comes to unwinding, enjoying a good read is more effective that listening to music or even going for a brisk walk. The study showed that to relax – measured by reducing muscle tension and one’s heart rate, took only six minutes of reading. A good book acts like a form of escapism, ultimately lowering cortisol hormone levels – the stress hormone that can damage bodies when it overtakes your body.

In addition, researchers at the University of Toronto found that people who are avid readers are less likely to behave impulsively and think through things prior to reacting. Readers have an increased capacity to process information which is quite helpful in reducing anxiety as they are better prepared for life’s uncertainties.

Reading Boosts Analytical Thinking

Reading engages the brain in new ways, creating new ways of thinking and neural networks. Studies suggest that critical thinking abilities do not mature or optimize until the mid-twenties (and for some even later), and these same thinking skills begin to decline a bit later than general intelligence – somewhere as one approaches middle age.

Analytic thinking evolves and develops by enjoying a consistent diet of books of all kinds that are of interest. Reading encourages differing perspectives, patterns, and connection identification, etc.

Reading Delays the Onset of Alzheimer’s and Dementia

For decades, research has strongly suggested a strong correlation between seniors who were busily engaged in mentally intense hobbies (like reading) and a reduction in the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia as they approached their 70s and 80s. In other words, studies have confirmed that brain power that goes unused becomes brain power that is lost.

Stronger neural connections make it more challenging (and it takes longer) for the natural Alzheimer’s process to damage brain neurons for Alzheimer’s symptoms to manifest.  

A more recent study from the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) notes that seniors can preserve the brain’s structural integrity by engaging in reading or other mentally challenging activities.

Reading Fosters Imagination and Creativity

Imagination, although something often associated with childhood, has many benefits for kids of all ages – including seniors. Imagination keeps one young-minded by encouraging new ideas, innovative and abstract thinking, and creativity, to name a few.

Imagination gives everyone the skills to overcome what appears to be mental and sometimes even physical limitations. Imagination also is vital to learning empathy, an understanding of how others feel, even if it is not how you think and feel.

Reading Helps Seniors Sleep Better

Sleep disorders are all too common among older Americans. Poor sleeping habits exacerbate the aging process because any sleep deficit can have an impact on one’s physical and mental health.  In fact, one of the first impacts of age is poor sleep habits, generally caused by pain, anxiety, or, very often, medication.

Reading before retiring at night has long been recognized as an effective way to fall off to sleep. The Mayo Clinic confirms on their website that developing a bedtime ritual, like reading a book, is a smart way to train yourself (and your brain) that it must associate bedtime with reading. Enjoying a book before bed triggers the production of natural sleep chemicals in the brain – dopamine and serotonin, among others.

Reading Improves One’s Mood

Seniors that are avid readers tend to be more satisfied and happier. And the more reading they do, the more likely they are to feel happy and content.

A noted 2009 study determined that reading offers great relaxation and can reduce mood-altering stress by up to 68%

Reading Can Extend Your Life

Still, need another reason to understand the benefits of reading for seniors?

A Yale study revealed that the simple act of reading for 3 ½ hours each week had the potential to extend one’s life by 23 months. Overall, after a dozen years, those who read books survived almost two years longer than non-book readers. But note that magazines and newspaper reading showed an increase in survival (when compared to the non-readers), although the positive impact was much less than the survival rates of those reading books.

Reading Aids and Large Print Books for Seniors

The research noted above reveals the many mental benefits reading for the elderly may receive. However, some seniors need to overcome challenges and obstacles just to indulge in some fine reading. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, more than 15% of Americans over the age of 75 face some form of vision loss.

Fortunately, the modern reading landscape has many options to assist seniors who face vision issues. Many publishers serve the senior population by printing large print books that are quite helpful to seniors with vision loss. Font sizes for large print books are typically 16 to 18-point fonts rather than the more traditional 10 to 12-point fonts. They are available online and also for free at a local library.

Other devices to assist reading for the elderly include e-readers which are electronic alternatives to a more traditional heavier book. This device is customizable as the lighting, font size, and color can be adjusted to meet your needs. E-readers can also be used to access a variety of books, magazines, and other publications.

However, some of these devices, which attempt to mimic a printed word, may still emit blue light. This is important because, like a TV or phone, blue light can make falling asleep more challenging and cause more disrupted sleep. In this instance, seniors may find it is best to buy a large print book or a magnifying glass conveniently online.

Adding a small amount of reading to one’s daily routine may be just what the doctor ordered!

If you already love a good book, you already know the ways to find inspiration to start reading. Consider these suggestions –

Find the books that pique your interest – from history to gardening, non-fiction, or romance – there is something for everyone.

  • Consider joining a book club – which is a great way to share your love of reading and stay social at the same time.
  • Craft a reading list – jot down the classics you have missed or ask friends and neighbors for suggestions.
  • Find or create a cozy, comfy place for reading – try to create a spot that is free of noise and distraction.

The Bottom-Line

Getting lost in a great book is a great way for seniors to maintain (and enhance) their mental and emotional health. It does not matter if the book is fiction, true crime, romance, biography, or any other kind of book.

Seniors who are voracious readers receive great health benefits from enjoying reading.


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