Friday, July 12, 2013

Reading and Memory

by Sheila Connolly

As I read my newspaper at dawn this morning (I'm trying to avoid the heat—five a.m. can be very pleasant, I've found, and yes, I still read a paper made of paper), my eye was caught by a short article in the "Be Well" section, with the headline "Reading and writing preserves memory, researchers say."

Briefly: Researchers at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, where there is a Memory and Aging Project (per their website, still recruiting participants, if you're interested) announced this week that a multi-year study they have conducted strongly suggests that "participants who reported reading and writing throughout their life, especially in old age, were 32 percent less likely to show deterioration in brain regions involved in memory," and "those who reported infrequently reading and writing into old age experienced a 48 percent faster rate of memory loss."

I feel so much better.  Okay, the study involved only three hundred octogenarians and depended upon answers to a survey (and we all know they aren't always accurate) as well as physical observations upon autopsy, but it's encouraging nonetheless.  The old adage "use it or lose it" still applies.

I've been reading before I can remember, and I've never slowed down, as my overflowing bookshelves can attest.  I've been writing for over a decade now (longer if you want to count academic papers in my younger days, as well as grant proposals and reports a decade or two later).  But who knew that I was preserving brain cells all the while?

Carl Sagan is reported to have said, "The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous." How rare is it that something that feels good is also good for us?  And even better, we as writers are performing a valuable service to our readers, by providing them with books that will help sustain their brain function for years.

And now I have another justification for all those books in my To-Be-Read pile:  I'm stockpiling therapeutic tools.  I'm not sure how well that rationale (rationalization?) applies to the thousands of books I've saved over the years, but I might want to reread them.  Would it be a sign of aging if I can't remember whodunnit in some of them?

Memory is a tricky thing.  Sometimes we rewrite our own, or we selectively mask or erase certain parts.  I had an odd conversation with my husband this weekend, when I described in detail a wonderful O'Keefe and Merritt gas stove we had in the first house we owned, and he had no memory of it at all.  (For the record, he used it as much as I did.) Wiped from his databanks.

In return, he accuses me of blotting out the second car we bought together.  Maybe.  I think he drove it a lot more than I did, commuting to work. I had a different car at the same time, and I can tell you a lot more about that one.
Sometimes these days I feel the need to document everything in the house, particularly items I've inherited from four generations of my family, because I'm the only one who knows what they are and where and who they came from, and my daughter won't know what each piece means, when she comes to inherit it.  I haven't done it yet.  But this weekend I sorted through my t-shirt collection, and I can still tell you when I acquired each one, and where and why. Maybe I'm just practicing. (I have a lot of t-shirts.)

But reading is something else.  It seems to be using a different part of our brain.  I'll be happy to sacrifice my memories of my t-shirts if I can continue to enjoy reading and writing.


Edith Maxwell said...

Let's hear it for the things we love to do also being good for us! Great post, Sheila. (I also still read the paper on paper...)

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, yes! Reading is a cure for many things: loneliness, ignorance, boredom, and brain rot. :-) Read on, Sheila. I feel very sorry for people who have little interest in the written word. Our spoken language, and our ability to read and write it, distinguishes us from other animals. It's a great gift that we should use constantly.

Julia Buckley said...

Keep reading. Hopefully we will all preserve our memories by doing this thing that we love, but even if we don't, we'll enjoy the reading we're able to do.