If You No Longer Want to Read This, It Could Signal Cognitive Decline

This subtle change in your reading habits may mean your memory is slipping.

As you age, maintaining your memory is crucial to your health—both mental and physical. But all too often, memory can become compromised by poor habits that erode cognitive function over time. "We are what we can remember," Richard Restak, MD, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, recently told The New York Times. Restak has written over 20 books on cognition and memory and says several subtle signs of cognitive decline may suggest memory loss—including one that may show up in your reading habits. Read on to learn which surprising sign could mean your memory is at risk, and how to restore full cognitive function.

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Memory loss is not a normal part of aging.

older man with dementiia looking out window
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Contrary to popular belief, Restak says memory loss is not considered a normal part of aging, adding that unless a brain disorder such as dementia is to blame, you have a good shot at reversing it. In his most recent book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind, he describes the 10 "sins," or "stumbling blocks that can lead to lost or distorted memories"—as well as the strategies that can counteract them.

He also notes that much of the time, memory problems are not memory problems at all, but attention problems. "Inattention is the biggest cause for memory difficulties, " Restak told the Times. "It means you didn't properly encode the memory." By slowing down and taking mental notes throughout your day, you'll be able to recall things better later.

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The type of books you choose to read could signal cognitive decline.

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Restak says that in the early stages of memory decline, many people no longer want to read works of fiction. "People, when they begin to have memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction," he told the Times.

Restak believes this is because fiction requires more active attention and engagement with the text. "You have to remember what the character did on Page 3 by the time you get to Page 11," he said.

Reading novels could help sharpen your memory.

Senior man old sitting and Reading a book at the retirement nursing home with cup of tea in hand
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It is precisely because fiction poses a challenge to those with minor memory problems that Restak suggests reading it anyway. The neurologist is a big proponent of practicing "memory exercises that you can integrate into everyday life," and says reading complex works of fiction that stretch your ability to track characters and storylines could give you cognitive gains.

If you find yourself struggling to retain these crucial story elements, Restak suggests trying to actively visualize the information. Associating a picture with a word can improve recall later, he says.

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Restak also suggests these other strategies for a better memory.

Woman writing in notebook
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The neurologist says there are a handful of other ways you may be able to protect your working memory—the type of memory that sits between immediate recall and long-term memory, and which allows you to put new information to practical use in everyday life. He suggests using mental exercises that challenge your brain in order to sharpen your encoding and recall skills.

The New York Times describes one mental exercise that Restak recommends. "First, recall all of the U.S. presidents, starting with President Biden and going back to, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt, writing or recording them. Then, do the same, from F.D.R. to Biden. Next, name only the Democratic presidents, and only the Republican ones. Last, name them in alphabetical order." You can play this game using any topic that's familiar and engaging to you—names of athletes or actors, for example—as long as there's a way to categorize or chronologize them.

By "maintaining information and moving it around in your mind," your cognitive function should remain sharper over time, Restak says. Of course, if you believe there is a deeper problem at work, speak with your doctor to evaluate your memory and cognition.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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