Children with more books at home experience less mental decline as they get older. Children who grow up in homes full of books tend to decline cognitively as they age, even when factors such as economic conditions and education are taken into account. This finding suggests that early cognitive enrichment has long-term protective effects on the brain.
Previous research has found that children who have large libraries at home are more likely to do well in school and later in their careers. Ella Cohn-Schwartz of Ben-Gurion University in Israel and her colleagues wondered whether the benefits of early reading extend into old age. To this end, they analyzed data from more than 8,000 people aged 65 and over without Alzheimer’s disease who had memory tests in 2011 and 2013 in 16 European countries as part of the “Health, Aging, and Retirement Survey in Europe.” The tests involved memorizing specific word lists and naming as many animals as possible in 1 minute.
The researchers asked the participants to indicate roughly how many books they had in their home as children and presented them with the options “no books,” “one shelf (approximately 25 books)”, “one bookcase (approximately 100 books)”, “two bookshelves or more.” Those who expressed growing up with larger book collections performed better on all memory tests. They were also found to exhibit a smaller decline in their scores on tests conducted in 2011 and 2013, that is, slower cognitive decline. Researchers; the findings were similar when participants used statistical techniques to adjust for wealth, education, physical health, and other factors.
According to Cohn-Schwartz, this may be because reading at an early age encourages people to read more, which in turn increases “cognitive reserves.” Intellectually stimulating activities such as reading are known to create extra connections in the brain that buffer against degenerative processes, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Ralph Martins of Edith Cowan University in Australia says these extra connections are likely to have been built in early childhood. However, Martins notes that children growing up in book-oriented homes are also encouraged to engage in other stimulating activities that can boost their cognitive reserves, such as playing sports and musical instruments.
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