Reading During Different Stages of Dementia

Dementia affects many abilities, including memory, communication, behavior and thought processes. Does it also affect the ability to read and comprehend information?

Two woman reading newspaper
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Reading in the Early Stages of Dementia

When you are in the early stages of Alzheimer's or related dementia, you can most likely continue to read without a problem. You might occasionally experience some difficulty with remembering everything you've read, especially if the material is unfamiliar. You may also need to go back to re-read some information to improve your comprehension of what you're reading, but the skill of reading will most likely remain intact in the early stages of dementia.

Reading in the Middle Stages of Dementia

As Alzheimer's progresses into the middle stages of dementia, most people can still read, but typically this ability will gradually decline over time. This can vary, with some people with mid-stage dementia being able to continue to enjoy reading, especially if it's been a life-long habit. What often appears to decline is the ability to understand or remember what they're reading—that is, the comprehension. This is related to the ability to understand what words mean and what a whole sentence is conveying. Additionally, when memory is impaired, it may be difficult to remember what it is that was read.

If the time comes when an academic journal just doesn't hold your interest anymore, you might still enjoy reading other simpler and more engaging books in the middle stages of dementia.

Reading in the Late Stages of Dementia

People in the late stages of Alzheimer's typically appear less interested in reading, although they may occasionally read a few words out loud. The ability to communicate verbally in the late stages usually declines significantly, so it's possible that the person could be reading more than he appears to be.

Some people in the middle-to-late stages of Alzheimer's seem to enjoy paging through a familiar magazine from when they were younger, or from their career. Others may enjoy listening to someone else read out loud, or looking through a book together.

Another comfort for some individuals with dementia is to have a few of their favorite books nearby. For people who love to read, even holding a favorite classic or religious book in their hands may bring comfort and peace.

Types of Dementia Affected

The ability to read is affected in the later stages of most types of dementia. Some types of frontotemporal dementia, such as semantic dementia and primary progressive aphasia, may see changes in the ability to read or comprehend earlier since they particularly affect language skills.

Research on Reading and Dementia Progression

According to a study published in Boston Medical Center Psychiatry, researchers were able to successfully identify people with dementia based on their ability to read using the National Adult Reading Test (NART). Poorer performance on the NART correlated fairly highly with those who had a diagnosis of dementia.

Does Reading Ward Off Dementia?

One research study found that people who remained mentally active in their middle years had fewer beta-amyloid deposits on current brain scans. (Beta-amyloid deposits are overly present in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease.) "Mentally active" was defined as reading, writing, and playing games.

Multiple other studies have demonstrated that people who are mentally active which, in those studies included reading, are less likely to decline cognitively as they age. This association held true for those who were mentally active in early, middle and late life.

The idea behind a higher level of mental activity being related to improved or maintained brain functioning is often referred to as cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve can be thought of in a similar way to your muscles. If you use them and push yourself, your muscles will be stronger and your body will function better.

Is There a Way to Slow the Progression to Continue Reading?

Several factors have been associated with the potential to slow down the progression of dementia for a limited time. These include:

  • An Early Diagnosis: Treatment with medication in the early stages of dementia has been somewhat effective in slowing the progression of the disease for some people. This can allow them to continue to enjoy activities like reading for a longer period of time.
  • Physical Exercise: Some studies have shown that physical exercise can slow down the progression of Alzheimer's and even improve memory and other cognitive functions for a brief time.
  • Bright Light Therapy: Some people in the early stages of Alzheimer's have benefited from bright light therapy and demonstrated improved cognition after this treatment.

​A Word From Verywell

If you enjoy reading but have been diagnosed with dementia, take heart. Research continues to be conducted on many different ways to treat and prevent Alzheimer's and other dementias. In the meantime, remain as mentally active as possible, and keep on reading for as long as possible.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Dementia: signs and symptoms.

  2. Alzheimer's Association. Frontotemporal dementia.

  3. Starr JM, Lonie J. Estimated pre-morbid IQ effects on cognitive and functional outcomes in Alzheimer disease: a longitudinal study in a treated cohortBMC Psychiatry. 2008;8:27. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-8-27

  4. Landau SM, Marks SM, Mormino EC, et al. Association of lifetime cognitive engagement and low β-amyloid depositionArch Neurol. 2012;69(5):623–629. doi:10.1001/archneurol.2011.2748

  5. Stern Y. Cognitive reserve in ageing and Alzheimer's diseaseLancet Neurol. 2012;11(11):1006–1012. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(12)70191-6

  6. Yuede CM, Timson BF, Hettinger JC, et al. Interactions between stress and physical activity on Alzheimer's disease pathology. Neurobiol Stress. 2018;8:158-171. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2018.02.004

Additional Reading
  • Alzheimer's Foundation of America. About Alzheimer's. Symptoms.
  • Neurologia. 2012 Oct 6. pii: S0213-4853(12)00252-6. Oral reading fluency analysis in patients with Alzheimer disease and asymptomatic control subjects.
  • Wilson RS, Boyle PA, Yu L, Barnes LL, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging. Neurology. 2013;81(4):314-321. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829c5e8a.

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.