The Potential for Literacy to Shape Lifelong Cognitive Health

Elizabeth A.L. Stine-Morrow, Erika K. Hussey, Shukhan Ng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In light of population aging, an understanding of factors that promote lifelong cognitive resilience is urgent. There is considerable evidence that education early in the life span, which promotes the development of literacy skills, leads to cognitive health and longevity, but the ways in which activity engagement in later adulthood affects long-term cognitive health is not well understood. The literature on cognitive training focusing on ability and skill training has not only demonstrated the existence of plasticity into late life but also shows that improvements are very tightly tied to the abilities trained. The rush to apply ability training to promote cognitive health has produced a vibrant “brain training” industry that neglects the very limited evidence for transfer to significant functional outcomes. Recent evidence on the neural substrates of reading, language comprehension, and discourse processing, as well as on the lifelong effects of literacy engagement in special populations, hints that reading may well be a “whole-brain exercise” with the potential to promote cognitive health. Such findings suggest promise for education-based approaches to promote lifelong cognitive health, calling for (a) societal investment in science at the interface of education and health, in particular to understand the mechanisms through which literacy engagement affects mind, brain, and physical health through the life span, and (b) innovation in developing models of life span education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)92-100
Number of pages9
JournalPolicy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • bilingualism
  • cognitive aging
  • cognitive resilience
  • life span education
  • literacy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Public Administration


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