Childhood pleasure reading may boost brain health, mental wellbeing later


London, July 2

Children who begin reading for pleasure early in life tend to perform better at cognitive tests and have better mental health when they enter adolescence, according to a study of more than 10,000 young adolescents.

In the study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers included 10,243 participants, and found reading about 12 hours a week was linked to improved brain structure.

It led to a positive performance in adolescence on cognitive tests that measured such factors as verbal learning, memory and speech development, and at school academic achievement.

These children also had better mental wellbeing, as assessed using a number of clinical scores and reports from parents and teachers, showing fewer signs of stress and depression, as well as improved attention and fewer behavioural problems such as aggression and rule-breaking.

Children, who began reading for pleasure earlier, also tended to spend less screen time -- for example watching TV or using their smartphone or tablet -- during the week and at weekends in their adolescence, and also tended to sleep longer.

Brain scans taken in adolescence, showed that children read at an early age had moderately larger total brain areas and volumes, including in particular brain regions that play critical roles in cognitive functions.

Other brain regions that were different among this group were those that have been previously shown to relate to improved mental health, behaviour and attention.

“Reading isn’t just a pleasurable experience -- it’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress. But on top of this, we found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being,” said Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge.

Reading for pleasure can be an important and enjoyable childhood activity. Unlike listening and spoken language, which develop rapidly and easily in young children, reading is a taught skill and is acquired and developed through explicit learning over time.

During childhood and adolescence, our brains develop, making this an important time in which to establish behaviours that support our cognitive development and promote good brain health.

“We encourage parents to do their best to awaken the joy of reading in their children at an early age. Done right, this will not only give them pleasure and enjoyment, but will also help their development and encourage long-term reading habits, which may also prove beneficial into adult life,” added Professor Jianfeng Feng from Fudan University in Shanghai.


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