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Books and reading

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I’ve always loved books. My mother would borrow a fresh batch from the town library each Thursday and we would devour them. Books have always been great presents as even the ones you wouldn’t have picked out to buy for yourself often turn out to be an interesting read.

I didn’t expect to become the author of any books but there are now 3 with my name on the cover, and we’ve just sent a new edition of one of them to the printers. It’s called the Oxford Textbook of Old Age Psychiatry and it’s about 1000 pages long. This edition was edited by my colleague Alan Thomas in Newcastle and me. We had to find authors for over 60 chapters and encourage them to keep to time, which I’m pleased to say they did.

Perhaps surprisingly, books are not rated very highly in scientific research circles, where what counts most are papers in peer reviewed journals. So for many busy researchers, taking time out to write a book chapter is a bit of a distraction and doesn’t earn a lot of brownie points. However, if the book is a prominent one it is quite a good thing for your reputation to be the author of the chapter about the topic that you are researching. I think it is because of that that many of our authors agreed to write for us. Certainly nobody we invited turned us down, which is most gratifying. We did ask them nicely, of course.

Reading is a simple word but in my view it spans a range of human activity. At one end, there may be a text where every word really counts because the style and the content are engrossing. A good novel or a poem might be like this. At the other end of the spectrum, there may be a 200 plus page report that is only available online or a set of papers for a meeting you’re going to attend: maybe not very interesting, perhaps not well laid out, not well written etc. The activity of running your eyes over this material is also called ‘reading’ but it’s a kind of filtering to ensure that there isn’t anything you need to pay any attention to. Then you can hit Delete or put the thing in the shredder.

I wonder what we know about dementia and reading? Certainly people with dementia often read less. They may be less motivated to initiate any new activity, including picking up a book or paper. They may have difficulty reading a novel if they can’t remember what happened earlier in the plot, and they may have difficulties with written language to go with problems with speaking or understanding spoken language. They may even have difficulty manipulating the pages; just think of trying to read a broadsheet paper in a strong wind!

There’s some evidence that maintaining mental activities offers some protection against dementia and there’s no reason to suppose that reading doesn’t help in this way, as a form of cognitive stimulation. The newspaper can help connect us to the world, and a good book to the emotional and intellectual life of other people. Reading can be a solitary pursuit or a collective one, either through book clubs or through oral readings. If you have loved reading throughout your life, then surely there is some way of tapping into this passion when you have dementia?

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