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Another Reason Why Reading and Writing is Awesome

July 25, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Library-Books

Though I certainly didn’t need another reason to read and write all the time, I saw an article today on The Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog that felt almost life affirming (since it kind of, you know…defines everything I’m about). The article describes how a study conducted on 294 individuals over the course of 6 years showed that life-long habits of reading and writing can have a significant impact on a person’s cognitive abilities as he or she reaches old age:

The findings, published online today in Neurology, suggest that reading books, writing and engaging in other similar brain-stimulating activities slows down cognitive decline in old age, independent of common age-related neurodegenerative diseases. In particular, people who participated in mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes, both in young, middle and old age, had a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental capacities than those who did not.

Pretty sweet, right?

Remaining a bookworm into old age reduced the rate of memory decline by 32 percent compared to engaging in average mental activity. Those who didn’t read or write often later in life did even worse: their memory decline was 48 percent faster than people who spent an average amount of time on these activities.

It’s worth noting that people who form reading habits early on tend to be the same people who “remain bookworms into old age”. If anything, this should stress the urgent need to encourage habits of reading and writing among the young. Of course, people’s reading habits don’t need to follow some straight trajectory from infancy to the grave. There was a period of time in my pre-teens where I actually didn’t enjoy reading and struggled to finish a book from cover to cover. But around my junior year of high school, my SAT-Prep instructor and a couple high school teachers helped guide me to the right authors and styles that would finally spark my passion for reading. Some simple mentoring and understanding of an individual’s taste can make a huge difference when it comes to reading habits. Just because you don’t like Wuthering Heights doesn’t mean you don’t like to read, it just means that you don’t like Emily Brontë (and believe me, you’re not alone there).

In a cultural-political sense, the inspiring results of this study underscore the need to re-affirm the value of books, articles, and academic journals over memes, cable news, and Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong, the latter three all have their place as snapshots and reference points, but when investigating the real-life implications of public policy, nothing can replace the stimulative and contemplative process of reading a more thought out argument. I’ll never forget the eyebrow-exploding amazement I felt when someone a couple years older than me (not the teenage punching bags I’m sure many of you where ready to jump on) claimed in a forum that, in framing political arguments, watching TV was superior to reading books and articles because (my paraphrasing) “In books you only get one person’s voice and perspective, and besides I just don’t have the time to read books.”

Yea…that happened.

Though it reminds me of a few things, the statement instantly brought me back to that classic Lewis Black routine (“If it weren’t for my horse…” and you know the rest). In case you it’s not clear just how stupid this remark was, the article mentioned before states that (emphasis is my own):

Reading gives our brains a workout because comprehending text requires more mental energy than, for example, processing an image on a television screen. Reading exercises our working memory, which actively processes and stores new information as it comes. Eventually, that information gets transferred into long-term memory, where our understanding of any given material deepens.

It should also send a strong message to those who like to scoff at the Liberal Arts, especially those who think the standard University curriculum should be absolutely gutted of the Humanities and Social Sciences altogether. It is simply impossible to over-estimate the importance of reading and writing, both from a fun, creative standpoint, and a more utilitarian, self-interested one. The same could be said about athletics or almost any physical activity involving some sort of effort or exertion. The Smithsonian article makes the same point right from the start, “the key to keeping our brains sharp for the long haul does have something in common with physical exercise: we have to stick with it. And it’s best to start early.” So go ahead, make fun of the kids who like to read and spend all their time at the library. Sure, throw in a few expletives while you’re at it!

When they’re still sharp at 75 and you can barely remember your middle name- We’ll see who’s laughing then.

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(There is one unsettling part from the study however which claims that our mental abilities reach their peak at age 22 and begin to drop off slowly at 27. And though I’m only 26, I suddenly feel the urge to go on Amazon or a book store and start spending money…lots and lots of money.)

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