Reading for pleasure to rewire our brains – Chatting to Dr Hilary Jones about reading as a health retreat for the brain

I recently found a quote on a painting in Amsterdam that said ’Reading is not a pastime, it’s a way of life. It eases souls, and when you need it most, it’s a light in the dark’. This is exactly how I feel about reading for pleasure. I am a bookworm and I was curious to find out the long-term benefits of reading on our health when I was invited to a presentation by TV doctor Dr Hilary Jones about reading for pleasure as a health retreat for the brain at a recent health talk (over a luscious lunch at the Ivy Soho). Along with other experts Dr Hilary presented and discussed the latest research around reading, brain health and wellbeing. So what does reading hold for our health and wellbeing? 

On the top right hand corner of this painting I saw in Amsterdam there’s a beautiful quote that says ’Reading is not a pastime, it’s a way of life. It eases souls, and when you need it most, it’s a light in the dark’.

The new study commissioned by Equazen reveals that there is much more to reading than enriching our knowledge and expanding our view of the world. 

Meeting the charming TV Dr Hilary Jones at the Ivy in London 

While digital technology and surfing the Internet alters brain activity and reduces attention span – which continues when we come off line – there is clear evidence that books, and learning to read, trigger positive brain changes and protect against mental health problems and cognitive decline.

Here are some worrying stats: 

It is estimated there are now 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, and every three minutes another person will develop the condition — so anything we can do to stall cognitive decline could have a huge impact. 

Watching more than 3.5 hours of television a day increases the risk of dementia in over-50s.  

From 2000 to 2013 the average adult attention span plunged by 50% — and is now lower than that of a goldfish.

The more television teens watch, the shorter their attention span — and this drop-in focus is reflected in their academic achievement.

Information fires up the same dopamine reward pathways that drive addiction.

Every year, one in four people will experience a mental health issue, and young people are particularly vulnerable with the Children’s Commissioner — the watchdog responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of children as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — warning that 28% of children and teens with a recognised mental health need are being turned away from mental health services.    

Brain scans shows that learning to read increases activity in the cortex, the area of the brain which carries out ‘higher order’ functions — and this increased activity extends to other parts of the brain not generally associated with learning. 

A good book can even rewire our brains, and prompt an increase in the number of neural connections. This connectivity boost continues for some time after we stop reading — a phenomenon researchers likened to the muscle memory which comes into play when we develop physical skills. 

Grab a second-hand book from a market sale: it’s good for the environment and good for your brain!

And the power of reading reaches down the generations, with the latest evidence revealing that a mother’s reading ability has an impact on the brain activity of her children.

The evidence-based and fully-referenced report from a panel of experts brought together by Equazen, sets out the latest science around brain health and cognition and shows a clear correlation between health literacy and wellbeing, with studies confirming how reading protects against depression and increases cognitive reserve.

Here are other interesting stats from the research (A OnePoll omnibus survey of 1,000 parents with children aged 4 to 16, conducted in March 2019) that shows that parents instinctively recognise the importance of reading: 

Parents think reading can help their child with development creativity/imagination (55%) and helps them develops language (listening and speaking) skills (51%).

51% said it developed language skills, and 25% thought it helped concentration and focus.

69% thought their children read fewer books than they did as a child.

A third (34%) thought their children had less exposure to books.

70% agree that children nowadays read fewer books than they used to.

35% of children read on a tablet or smart phone.

32% of parents have downloaded e-books for their child to read.

Two fifths of children are a member of the local library.

Nearly one in 10 children wouldn’t be happy to receive a book as a present.

When struggling with homework 63% of children turn to the Internet for help.

12% of children read a book because a film version is being released.

One fifth of adults opt for a smartphone when wanting to read something.

One in five parents find it difficult to get their child to read.

A quarter of parents read to their child two to three times a week.

Seven in 10 adults think reading is more important than writing or spelling.

Our brains are like muscles and studies show that if we don’t use them, we lose them. The most recent, a Scottish study published in the British Medical Journal, showed that problem solving increased cognitive scores and protects against cognitive decline in old age.

Language is particularly protective. Researchers at Chicago’s Rush University who tracked 294 seniors found their cognitive skills were linked to how often they read books, wrote letters, and visited a library.

What’s good for the body is also good for the brain — a new study showed that six months of regular aerobic exercise produced significant improvements in executive function in over-55s with cognitive impairment.

Researchers who tracked 1,000 Swedish women for 44 years found those with the best cardiovascular fitness were less likely to get dementia and if they did, the onset was delayed by 9.5 years compared to women with average levels of fitness.

The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) — an independent think-tank of scientists, health professionals, academics and policy experts — points out: “Increasingly, research is showing that a healthy diet is crucial to optimal brain health.”

On top of book reading and the right mental stimulation, a healthy diet and regular exercise are the bedrocks of cognitive function in childhood, and they continue to be important at every stage of life. There are no ‘magic bullets’, but there are a number of proven strategies it makes sense to include in your cognitive arsenal.

Our diets need to include key nutrients to maintain brain health. They are: iron, vitamin B12 and, in particular, the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Data from 11,875 pregnant women, found that children born to those with the highest intakes of seafood, a rich source of DHA, had higher scores for verbal intelligence, positive behavioural patterns, fine motor skills and social development when they were tested at eight years of age. DHA is found in breastmilk and higher concentrations have been linked to a wide range of brain benefits in babies. Placebo-controlled study in healthy eight- to 10-year-old boys found that DHA supplements improved their reaction times and sustained attention, and brain scans confirmed DHA increased activity in their prefrontal cortex. A UK study of 9,000 women and children found women with the lowest consumption of omega-3 also had children with lower IQs by the age of three, and by the time they were teens they were twice as likely to struggle with social interactions. 


With such clear evidence that a balanced diet as well as books reading trigger positive brain changes and protect against mental health problems and cognitive decline, don’t be afraid to read leisurely whenever you can (I know that free time is generally an issue for us mums, unfortunately).  A good book can re-wire our brains, and prompt an increase in the number of neural connections. With this in mind I am going to enjoy my leisure reading even more from now on. 

Check London Mums’ book section for recommendations on great books for children and mums alike. 


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The Gift of Reading


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