Can growing up surrounded by books protect against old-age dementia?

Over 5 million adults over 65 suffer from dementia, and over 14 million are expected by 2060 as the general population ages, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Reading a book (Illustrative) (photo credit: WALLPAPER SAFARI)
Reading a book (Illustrative)
(photo credit: WALLPAPER SAFARI)

A home filled with books in earlier life could have an impact on cognitive aging, claims a new study by Israeli researchers in Ben Gurion and Haifa universities.

Dr. Galit Weinstein of The University of Haifa, Dr. Ella Cohn-Schwartz of Ben Gurion University, and Noam Damri of the Israel Gerontological Data Center conducted analyses based on the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), a database of hundreds of thousands of questionnaires, to find out whether elderly participants (who were deemed healthy, free of diagnosed stroke, Alzheimer's etc.) had better memory, fluency and overall cognitive function, based on their childhood exposure to reading material.

The study, which was published last month in the medical journal Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, found that having home libraries (defined as at least one full shelf of books) during childhood was associated with better performance on immediate and delayed word list recall tests as well as verbal fluency tests.

The researchers also found a connection between larger library size and better memory overall, both short and long-term recall, though speaking fluency wasn't affected.

Dementia, unlike Alzheimer's, is not a particular disease, but a term for an impaired ability to remember, speak or organize thoughts in old age. Not everyone suffers from dementia as they age, and many factors contribute to the development of the phenomenon, many of which are unknown.

 Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are sit inside the Alzheimer foundation in Mexico City (credit: EDGARD GARRIDO/ REUTERS) Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are sit inside the Alzheimer foundation in Mexico City (credit: EDGARD GARRIDO/ REUTERS)

Over 5 million adults over 65 suffer from dementia, and over 14 million are expected by 2060 as the general population ages, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

"If we can identify early life factors that affect brain aging and give an advantage to people in late life," explains Dr. Ella Cohn-Schwartz, "then we can preserve cognitive function in older age."

The team attempted to eradicate other factors in their analysis, such as level of education and economical income and found that the results still showed a correlation between book exposure and performance.

THE STUDY took its information from the SHARE project, which began in 2004 and attempted to study the social, economical, health and environmental factors affecting the aging population in Europe through over half a million surveys. The study collected data in a number of waves, adressing adults aged 50 and above from Israel and Europe.

But the research isn't over, and the researchers believe an important question still stands. How will this finding relate to children growing up in the digital era? Do children read books anymore, or does a shelf full of books have nothing to do with their everyday habits? Does the written word in a digital format - whether as an e-book or as a social media post - have the same effect on halting memory degeneration?

That remains to be seen. 

"More studies are needed to determine the long-term effects on the brain of the transition from reading printed books to using digital media," says Dr. Weinstein, but "this study contributes to our understanding of the importance of our childhood environments for brain health in old age."