Q. At an Alzheimer’s support group I mentioned that I read aloud to a family member when I visit. There was a lively discussion about reading aloud—it benefits the person doing the reading but does it benefit the person being read to if they do not comprehend the words, or does hearing the words read to a person stimulate brain activity?

A. Well, that is an interesting and complex question. There are many aspects to reading, and, yes, 10 minutes reading aloud every day is recommended for challenging mental stimulation and an anti-aging strategy. When you read aloud you must first recognize the words (one aspect of reading); you must also remember how to articulate them (another aspect of reading); then you must use your tongue and teeth and vocal chords to say them aloud (yet another aspect of reading).  All of this challenges the brain.

Naturally understanding the words cognitively is yet another aspect of reading and that is desirable – however, that is only one aspect. No one knows for sure what a brain with dementia picks up from hearing someone read aloud. Anecdotally, however, reading aloud to groups of people with dementia has been found to stimulate memories and imagination. Katie Clark who runs Reader groups with dementia patients, has written an anthology entitled A Little, Aloud that reportedly contains stories and poems that have proved most popular, together with anecdotes about the people who have enjoyed them. Clark has been quoted as saying that poetry seems to work better than prose with dementia patients.

In an article entitled “5 Engaging Activities for Dementia Patients,”Kendall Van Blarcom includes reading aloud: “Reading aloud is something you can do for dementia patients. Listening to someone read often sparks memory recall and encourages imagination. Sometimes it even sparks discussion. Shorter works, such as poems or short stories, work better. They don’t tax attention spans and compress significant meaning into much fewer words.” (https://kvanb.com/activities-for-dementia-patients/)

Apparently, having patients with dementia read aloud has resulted in some memory recall. According to the Alzheimer’s Reading Room, when they began creating short stories for Alzheimer’s patients to read aloud they “were surprised by the journey that this simple exercise created.” As the individuals read the stories aloud they started telling the staff stories from their own lives.