Whether you’re enjoying a thriller by Stephen King, a bittersweet romance from Danielle Steele, or an Inspector Gamache murder mystery, you’re in for some good news.
Reading these, or indeed any novel, will lengthen your life. Read on to find out why.
Sitting for extended periods of time is not good for health or longevity, yet when you’re reading a book that’s exactly what you’re doing. Even so, some studies – although not all – have found reading reduces the risk of death.
More research was clearly needed to find out if reading really does confer a survival advantage, so that’s what a group of scientists from Yale set out to do.
Books Promote “Deep Reading”
The Yale team also wanted to find out if there really was a life-extending benefit to reading, and what mechanism lay behind it. In addition, they wanted to explore whether the type of reading material was relevant to any longevity benefits, since this had never been investigated before.
The researchers speculated that a longevity benefit did exist from reading and that this was driven by engaging cognitive processes. They also thought that books were more likely to drive the effect rather than newspapers or magazines.
The researchers wrote, “Reading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage.
“First, it promotes ‘deep reading’, which is a slow, immersive process; this cognitive engagement occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented.
“Cognitive engagement may explain why vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills are improved by exposure to books.
“Second, books can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival. Better health behaviors and reduced stress may explain this process.”
The researchers’ theory was that books achieved the above health and emotional benefits better than newspapers and magazines because authors “present themes, characters and topics in greater length and depth.”
Would their study back up or dash their speculations?
Books vs. Newspapers, Magazines
To find out they collected information from 3,635 participants over the age of 50 who took part in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study. This included information about reading patterns.
Time spent reading books was divided into zero, up to 3.49 hours and 3.5 hours or more per week. For magazines and newspapers, the divisions were zero to two hours, 2.01 to 6.99, and seven or more hours per week.
Almost 40 percent of the sample read either books or newspapers and magazines but not both. This allowed them to be treated separately.
The researchers also had data on participants’ age, gender, race, wealth, education, job and marital status, cognitive status and engagement, vision, and health problems including depression.
The researchers considered all of these factors when crunching the numbers, and, together with the number of participants and length of follow up, this made for a comprehensive and very robust study.
Book Reading Reduces Mortality By 20 Percent
The results were as follows…
At the end of twelve years, one in three non-book readers died compared to just over a quarter of book readers.
In other words, book readers experienced a 20 percent reduction in mortality compared to non-book readers. Those who read up to 3.5 hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die. This rose to 23 percent for those who read beyond this. This gave book readers a four-month survival advantage at the point of 80 percent survival (the time it takes 20 percent of a group to die).
Book reading was protective regardless of gender, wealth, education, or health.
The analysis also demonstrated for the first time that any level of book reading provides a significantly stronger survival advantage than reading newspapers or magazines.
Book Reading Improves Cognition
For the first time ever, the researchers were also able to show that improved survival was because book reading improves cognition, not because better cognition leads to a higher propensity to read – the reverse causation effect. In plain English, it’s not so much that people read because they’re smart. Rather, they become smart because they read.
The Yale team wrote, “This finding suggests that reading books provides a survival advantage due to the immersive nature that helps maintain cognitive status.”
They concluded their study by writing, “These findings suggest that the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them.”
The study didn’t look at what types of books people were reading but a national survey found that 87 percent of book readers read fiction.
So, if you’d like to keep your brain sharp, extend your life, and want a healthy excuse for avoiding exercise, you might want to head to your nearest bookshop or library and curl up with a good novel.
A Chapter a Day – Association of Book Reading with Longevity