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A Neurologist’s Secret Weapon for Keeping Your Memory Sharp as You Age: Novels

Jessica Stillman
3 min readMay 16

If you’re a busy adult, sitting down with a novel might seem like nothing more than a light and enjoyable way to unwind. But science suggests fiction offers our brains a lot more than just distraction and stress relief.

Research suggests that deep, concentrated reading — the kind we do when we sink deeply into a great novel — builds key mental skills like focus and empathy as well as the ability to sift through complicated information and analyze conflicting arguments. Reading doesn’t just fill our brains with images and ideas. It actually rewires how we think about them.

All of which adds up to a good argument for why you may want to join super-achievers like Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Jeff Bezos and make more time for fiction in your schedule. But if you’re still struggling to make time for literature, perhaps Richard Restak, a neurologist and the author of 20 books on the brain, can convince you. Restak insists novels have one more undersung brain benefit — they also help keep our memories sharp as we age.

The link between fiction and staying sharp as you age

Restak’s new book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind, is all about combating the kind of everyday memory troubles that plague most of us as we age. He recently spoke to The New York Times about some of his headline advice.

Many of his suggestions will be familiar to anyone who has done even a little reading about how to keep your memory sharp. Mind puzzles are helpful — crosswords are particularly useful, recent research found. Don’t over-rely on technology. Turn that GPS off once in a while. Try to memorize your shopping list and only use notes as a backup. Restak doesn’t mention physical exercise, but approximately a million studies suggest it’s great for your brain as well as your body.

There is no doubt all this is solid advice, but it was Restak’s comments about reading fiction that struck me as freshest. “People, when they begin to have memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction,” Restak observes.

Why? Because while you can flip through many nonfiction books and profitably read a chunk here…

Jessica Stillman

Top Inc.com columnist/ Editor/ Ghostwriter. Book lover. Travel fiend. Nap enthusiast. https://jessicastillman.com/