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Reading, Cognitive Abilities & Dementia


According to several different studies of dementia patients, there is promising evidence that a number of activities performed by patients can actually slow down the progression of this disease. You've probably heard that doing crossword puzzles will help keep your memory strong, and that may be true, but in general, there are a whole host of things that one can do to keep your brain functioning at its best for the longest period of time, even after a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.  Reading is one of them.

Reading is an amazing thing.  It is a technical function, requiring the use of your eyes and brain to work together.  It is a learned function, generally requiring a bit of effort at the onset for the student to grasp the symbols and what they each mean, then stringing them together into sentences to make an idea come to life on a blank sheet of paper.  It's also a feat of the imagination, in order to “see” before you what the author is speaking of.

Most of us who have been literate for years think nothing of the ability to read, or of all of the mental functions that have to be operating in order for us to be able to engage in this activity.  Reading is active, whereas television viewing, is for the most part, passive.  This is why it's often more difficult to talk oneself into reading in the evening when you are sleepy than talking yourself into watching a program.  One requires of those activities requires something from you mentally, one does not.

For all of us, this is good news, but especially for dementia patients who are trying to fight back against the brain's process to shut down their memory.  Activities that exercise active cognitive functioning are perfect for keeping mental capacity at it's sharpest.  This does not mean that it will reverse a diagnosis.  It simply means that the patient will be trying to maintain the mental powers that they do have for as long as possible.

But, what should the patient read?  The simplest answer to this question is to start where there is interest.  If they are interested in gardening, get all manner of books, magazines & newspaper articles about gardening.  If they love fiction, get fiction.  Beginning with subjects that interest them will help to encourage even those who do not enjoy reading to begin to engage with written material again.

How about a challenge?  Many libraries also offer challenges to help people broaden their reading enjoyment.  Read 1 mystery, 1 non-fiction, 1 book of poems and read aloud 1 book to a child.  If your library does not offer these challenges, they are simple enough to make up yourself.  Just post them on the wall & check them off as they are completed.

What about libraries?  Some people begin to shy away from public locations once a diagnosis has been obtained, but a library is a wonderful place to visit for as long as is possible.  They are often very quiet, do not change much, and are full of areas to challenge cognitive abilities.  Looking up books and finding them in the aisles can be quite challenging, but there is always librarian help if it gets too frustrating.  Oftentimes, there are puzzles laid out on tables to be worked on and walked away from, at will.  Every type of reading material is available through your library or through inter-library loan to anyone who has an address and would like a library card.

If you happen to be working with someone who never learned to read, does not read well, or has perhaps lost the ability to read, books are not out of the question.  Most libraries have an enormous section of audio books to check out.  Start with some that you know to be enjoyable and work out from there.  There are also a number of online resources available, such as audible and librivox where you can subscribe and listen to a nearly limitless supply of books without having to actually read them in print.  This process will still stimulate the brain, though perhaps not as much as an actual print copy.

Encourage reading whenever you can.  Model it whenever you can.  You'll not only be doing a service to those around you, you'll be doing a service for your own mind.

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