Did you know? Books in childhood affect the way the brain ages

This factor in your childhood determines how your brain will function as you age.

Oodles of reading material at an old bookstore in Safed (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Oodles of reading material at an old bookstore in Safed
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

There is no doubt that one of the most frightening things about aging is a decline in cognitive function. Now a new study from the University of Haifa reveals that the environment in a child’s home affects brain function in old age. Here are all the details.

Our brain ages as we get older, and this process often causes a decline in cognitive function. Many recent studies are trying to find ways to slow this decline, or at least factors that predict it. Now, a new study from the University of Haifa has found a common factor which can do that. According to this study, exposure to books in childhood affects the way our brains age. 

Yes, book exposure, not necessarily reading.

The study found that the more books homes contained in childhood, the slower the decline in cognitive function in old age. 

"Developing cognitive abilities in childhood can produce 'reserves' that protect the brain from degeneration in old age,” said Dr. Galit Weinstein, the study's editor. 

She added that "we actually examined the exposure to books and not reading itself. The hypothesis was that the very exposure to a large number of books in the home could be a stimulus with a positive effect over time."

Twenty-seven countries and 8,239 participants

Cognitive decline is a phenomenon that can occur as we age, and it affects our ability to understand, remember and function socially. Becoming educated, activating the brain in various ways such as learning a language and solving crossword puzzles, as well as attending social gatherings, are some things that may reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age. But as mentioned, researchers are looking for more ways to prevent it.

In the current study published in the journal Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, Weinstein, from the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa, together with Dr. Ella Cohn-Schwartz from the Department of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University and Noam Damari from the Center for Multidisciplinary Research in Aging, examined the relationship between the number of books in a person’s childhood home and the cognitive functioning of adults over the age of 65 years.

The study was based on data from the Health, Aging and Retirement Survey in Europe (SHARE) and involved 8,239 people aged 65 and over, from 27 countries across Europe between 2004 and 2013. Most study participants reported that they had between 11-25 books as children.

 Start filling the house with books

The study results show that the larger the home library, short and long-term memory function and verbal fluency were better in older people regardless of the level of education or socioeconomic characteristics.

"Our findings show the possible contribution of the home library to the preservation of cognitive health and the slowdown of brain aging decades later," said Weinstein. 

Cohn-Schwarz added that if it’s possible to identify factors in childhood associated with cognitive aging in old age, it might be possible to better preserve cognitive function in old age.

According to the researchers, exposure to a large number of books in childhood can increase the cognitive abilities of children who learn to enjoy reading, acquiring education and other cognitive skills, and therefore develop "reserves" that protect them from the process of cerebral degeneration in old age. 

It’s also possible that children who have been exposed to many books in their home maintain a healthier lifestyle throughout their lives, which is reflected in a healthy diet, exercise and not smoking which helps preserve cognitive abilities in old age.

Weinstein concluded that this study adds to the knowledge of the importance of children's environmental conditions to their brain health in old age. Further research is needed to learn about the long-term consequences for the brain as we transition from reading printed books to kids constantly using digital media.