Reading During Childhood Leads to Better Cognition, Mental Wellbeing

New research reveals that reading for pleasure about 12 hours a week during early childhood boosts brain development, leading to better cognitive performance and mental well-being in adolescence.

Early childhood is a critical neurodevelopmental period in a person's life. It's a time when the brain rapidly learns skills and behaviors that impact an individual for years to come. Playing, attending school, and reading written language all play a role in brain development during childhood, which may contribute to cognitive abilities in adolescence.

While some research suggests reading activates two distinct brain networks, it's unclear what impact reading as a child has on brain structure, cognitive abilities, and mental health in the teen years.

However, a study published on June 28 in Psychological Medicine examined this closer using a large cohort of more than 10,000 young teens in the United States. They found that teens who read for pleasure when they were young children performed better on cognitive tests, enjoyed better mental well-being, and had larger brain volumes than those who didn't read at a young age.

To conduct the study, researchers compared teens who began reading for pleasure between the ages of two and nine years with adolescents who showed little interest in reading or who started reading later.

The team analyzed data from cognitive tests, mental health assessments, behavioral assessments, and clinical interviews. They also examined the participants' brain scans. Moreover, the analysis also considered factors that might skew the results, such as socioeconomic status.

After the analysis, the team found that among the 10,243 participants, about half spent three to ten years reading during childhood.

They also discovered that teens who enjoyed reading at a young age performed better on cognitive tests that assessed verbal learning, memory and speech development, and academic achievement.

In addition, these teenagers exhibited fewer signs of stress, depressive symptoms, and behavioral challenges.

When the team examined the participants' brain scans, they found that teens who enjoyed reading for pleasure at an early age had moderately larger total brain areas and volumes. This included brain areas responsible for cognitive function, behavior, and attention.

What's more, the teens who frequently read as young children slept longer at night and tended to spend less time on a smartphone or tablet than those who didn't read as much.

The scientists determined that around 12 hours of reading per week offered the most benefits. However, they say reading more than that may have the opposite effect — likely because spending that much time reading leaves little room for socializing or engaging in physical activities that may also promote cognitive function.

"Reading isn't just a pleasurable experience — it's widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy, and reduces stress," explains Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge in a news release.

Sahakian adds, "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 wellbeing."

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