Fulfilled living in later life
Read a good novel to keep your memory sharp, says brain expert.

Monday 13th February 2023

Read a good novel to keep your memory sharp, says brain expert.

Louise Morse

Read a good novel to keep your memory sharp, says brain expert.

Dr Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. A long list of his awards and achievements is given on the appropriately named wondrium.com website, including 20 books on different aspects of the brain. In his latest book, ‘The Complete Guide to Memory’ the 81 year old Professor describes tactics that keep our memories sharp. Some of them we know already, such as eating dark chocolate, having a siesta, and taking exercise, but there are two that newly stand out. One is not to drink alcohol at all, regardless of advice that moderate intake is good, and the other is to read a good book – but fiction only. Over his years as a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Dr Restak has noticed that one of the first signs of early dementia is that the person stops reading fiction as they can no longer keep the characters or plot development in their working memory. Time then, to settle down with a cup of tea or coffee, a handful of dark chocolate and a couple of uplifting, interesting novels. Here are a couple of new books to exercise your little grey cells, make you laugh (an added bonus), and lift your spirits.

The Thursday Murder Club series, by Richard Osman are novels to challenge your brain and warm your heart at the same time. The first book, The Thursday Murder Club, introduces four friends in their late 70s and 80s living in a retirement village somewhere off the A21 in Kent. Elizabeth is a former M15 ‘spook’, married to Stephen, who was also a spook but who is now living with dementia; Ibrahim, an introvert Egyptian psychiatrist, Ron, a former Trade Union Boss with West Ham tattoos on his arms and Joyce, a widow who used to be a nurse who loves knitting and copes with very well with corpses. Another central character is Bogdan, a handsome Polish man in charge of security. Bogdan is super capable, says very little, has extraordinary insight and loyalty and plays chess with Stephen. In their Thursday meetings they were investigating unsolved murders when they found themselves on the hunt for a real life killer who struck much closer to home.

The Washington Post says, ‘Osman concocts a satisfyingly complex whodunit full of neat twists and wrong turns. But unlike most crime novelists, he ensures his book's strength and momentum stem not from its plot or its thrills but rather its perfectly formed characters. Once again, the quartet of friends makes for delightful company.’

Osman also writes with compassion and humour. When Bogdan approaches a van on site which shouldn’t be there he sees through the side window a newspaper, ‘which is not unusual in a van, but then notes it is the Daily Telegraph, which is not.’ One night when Stephen wakes around 1.00 am, determined to kill an old rival, Elizabeth points out that he’ll need a driver and a car, and they should call Bogdan. At 1.00 in the morning Bogdan answers the phone on the first ring, and tells Stephen to give him an hour to get everything ready, knowing that Stephen will fall back to sleep.

Another recommendation is ‘Arthur’s Garden,’ by Pam Rhodes (Songs of Praise). Beginning in 1906 it covers the 80 years of Arthur’s life and is based on a real Arthur and his terraced garden. Woven into the story of the garden are the lives of his children and grandchildren, their friends and community, the shared joys and griefs, the sons who went to war and returned those who didn’t. It’s threaded through with gentle touches of the Christian faith that sustained them. The descriptions of the plants in the garden will delight everyone who loves gardens. Throughout the book are poems and quotations, and beautiful illustrations by Sara Mulvanny.

It's a nostalgic book that will bless older people who remember those days. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1991 – 2002) wrote, ‘I was simply entranced by this book. I could not put it down! … I am not given to tears, but I had more a lump in my throat reading Arthur’s Garden. It moved me very deeply and deserves a wide readership.’