By reading books and writing to others, an older person may markedly slow mental decline and a plunge into dementia.

The habits one develops throughout a lifetime, from childhood to old age, influence the speed with which the brain slows, clogged by plaques and "tangles" and marked by lesions associated with reduced levels of cognition. By exercising the brain with mentally stimulating activity such as reading and writing — whether in old epistolary tradition or via the World Wide Web — aging people may follow the urging of 20th century poet Dylan Thomas to his father to "rage, rage against the dying light."

In a new study, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago checked the dying light of nearly 300 older Americans, finding that reading, writing, and other brain-stimulating activities helped to preserve memory.

"Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age," Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., lead author of the study, told reporters.

Wilson and his pals tested 294 people on memory and cognition every year for approximately six years before their deaths at an average age of 89. The study participants answered a questionnaire about their reading habits, and whether they wrote letters or in journals or participated in any other mentally stimulating activities. They asked about such activities during childhood, adolescence, middle age, and later in life.

The difference between those who had engaged their minds and those who had not was dramatic, researchers reported. After adjusting for differing levels of plaques and tangles in the brain, mental activity earlier and later in life accounted for a nearly 15 percent variance in decline among study participants.

"Based on this, we shouldn't underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents," said Wilson.

Moreover, the effect was pronounced for people who had continued mentally stimulating activities later in life — a reduction of 32 percent in the rate of decline. By contrast, those with infrequent activity experienced mental decline 48 percent faster than those with average activity.

The study was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Source: Wilson RS. Does Being A Bookworm Boost Your Brain Power In Old Age? Neurology. 2013.