Living in Society

Reading While Aging

Books by Iowa-connected folks.

On the corner of my sorting table rest piles of recently read books. I am shocked at the level of retention from the experience. It is not as much as I want. Is there an issue with reading while aging, or not?

In an article titled, “Reading in Normally Aging Adults,” authors associated with the American Psychological Association present the following article abstract which describes the physiological and cognitive process. Sorry, it is a bit long, yet everything in it is important.

Skilled reading requires coordination of knowledge about language with a broad range of basic cognitive processes. While changes due to aging have been documented for many of those cognitive processes, the ability to read declines little during healthy aging. Aging is associated with slower reading, longer eye movements and more regressive eye movements, but the qualitative patterns of older adults’ eye movements in response to lexical characteristics (e.g., frequency) and sentence characteristics (e.g., word predictability) largely resemble those of younger adults. The age-related differences in reading behavior are due in part to older adults’ reduced visual abilities. In addition, they may result from compensatory strategies wherein older adults rely more on their intact semantic intelligence and less heavily on perceptual processing of text, or alternatively they may be a consequence of older adults being less adept at effectively coordinating word recognition with processes of oculomotor control. Some age-related declines are seen when reading comprehension and text memory are assessed at lower levels of representation for complex sentences. However, older adults perform as well or better than younger adults when higher-level meanings of a text are assessed. These high levels of performance reflect older adults’ ability to draw on crystalized semantic intelligence that provides well-organized structures in long-term memory of the patterns that tend to occur in natural language. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved)

Reading in normally aging adults by Gordon, P. C., Lowder, M. W., & Hoedemaker, R. S. APA PsychNet.

My take away is that while my vision has somewhat deteriorated, mental capacity remains strong, and I can draw on information and experience gained in my past to better and more quickly understand what I am reading. According to other articles I read this morning, reading can maintain mental functioning, and stave off common mental illnesses among the elderly like Alzheimer’s disease.

The money quote is, “However, older adults perform as well or better than younger adults when higher-level meanings of a text are assessed.” In theory, these psychologists say, since I have visual acuity, I retain the potential to be as good a reader as anyone.

Why am I worried about the piles of books read yet little remembered?

The abstract points to a borderline area of reading: the interaction between read text and the stored intelligence in my brain. To what extent am I processing what I read in context of past reading experience, and to what extent am I taking in text to gain new experiences? My fear is it is the former. If we read, it should be to expand our knowledge and experience, not to intake words and sentences as a form of confirmation bias.

Because I curate a large home library, I plan to continue reading for as many months and years as possible. My daily reading goal is 25 pages from a book. For the most part, I exceed that amount depending upon how engaging the writing has been. Importantly, I want more than to check off the daily reading goal box on my to-do list. I want to gain knowledge and experience that will help me better cope with society. I want to read to become a better writer.

By year’s end I will have read almost 60 books. If the text is being assimilated into my existing cognitive capacity, there is nothing wrong with that. I take up each new book with hope it will reveal something about society, something specific in life, an answer to a question or something about myself. I also read to see how other authors write. As long as I take a few minutes to appreciate each book after finishing it, I am of an age where everything read becomes part of my world view.