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Reading for Pleasure Can Strengthen Memory in Older Adults, Beckman Researchers Find

by Melinh Lai, Beckman Institute / Dec 9, 2022

Liz Stine-Morrow and Adult Learning Lab researchers

Liz Stine-Morrow, research staff member Ilber Manavbasi, EPSY graduate student Giavanna McCall, and visiting research data manager Shuk Han Ng (right to left). Photo courtesy the Beckman Institute.

Beckman Institute researchers, led by College of Education professor emerita Liz Stine-Morrow and with help from the Champaign Public Library, investigated the potential benefits of reading in improving memory. They found that regular, engaged leisure reading can strengthen memory skills in older adults, laying the groundwork for better practices in preserving our mental abilities as we age.

Baseball may be America’s favorite pastime, but in rankings of the most popular hobbies, reading is more consistently ranked highly. It’s not hard to see why: reading is simultaneously engaging and relaxing, and it’s fun to do alone and with friends.

A team of researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology have uncovered yet another reason to love reading: it may help preserve memory skills as people — and their brains — grow older. Their work is reported in Frontiers in Psychology.

“Leisure reading, the kind that really sucks you in, is good for you, and it helps build the mental abilities on which reading depends,” said Beckman researcher Liz Stine-Morrow, professor emerita of Educational Psychology, director of the Adult Learning Lab, and the study's senior investigator.

One of these mental abilities is episodic memory, or memory for events, which allows us to remember what happened in previous chapters of a book and to make sense of the ongoing story. Another ability is working memory, the capacity to hold things in our minds as we engage in other mental processes. Working memory helps us keep track of things that happened in recent paragraphs as we continue reading. 

Both episodic memory and working memory tend to decline as we get older, but habitual readers routinely practice these skills in different contexts.

“There’s a pretty robust literature showing that there’s a relationship between working memory and both language comprehension and long-term memory. Working memory seems to decline with age, but there’s a lot of variation, especially among older adults,” Stine-Morrow said.

Read the full story from the Beckman Institute ...