pc: Larry Page
7 Science-Backed Ways Reading Makes You Healthy
“So often, in the past too, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me and reminded me that there are good things in the world.” – Vincent van Gogh
Books make everything better.
They enchant and delight, challenge and provoke, provide hours of entertainment on lazy afternoons, and offer solace in hard times.
It seems only natural that people who cultivate a reading habit will likely become happier and healthier as a result. So it should come as no surprise that evidence from numerous scientific studies suggests that reading really is good for you!
For one thing, reading reduces stress—even more than listening to music, having a cup of tea, or taking a walk. These pastimes are all good for you too, but studies indicate that when it comes to calming down, reading takes the top prize. It lowers stress levels by 68%, slowing your heart rate and helping tense muscles relax. It’s also the perfect pre-bedtime activity. Television, computer, and phone screens tend to keep people awake in the evenings, but a printed book is an ideal way to unwind before dozing off.
Reading is associated with a longer life
A 2016 study published in Social Science & Medicine found that book reading is associated with a longer life.
Researchers observed the reading habits of 3635 people, and adjusted for factors such as gender, education, wealth, race, and marital status, health, and depression. Study participants were classified into those who read books for 3.5 hours or more per week, those who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week, and those who did not read at all.
When followed up over 12 years, it was found that those who read books for more than 3.5 hours a week were 23% less likely to die, and those who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week were 17% less likely to die, when compared to those who did not read books.
This study found that book reading provided a higher survival advantage over reading newspapers and magazines, because books engage the brain more than newspapers and magazines do. Books encourage readers to undergo “deep reading” which “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”. Deep reading involves the active process of focused, deliberate reading which improves comprehension of the text, as opposed to leisurely skimming or lighter reading.
Deep reading is characterized by a global increase in blood flow in the brain, in contrast to skimming or lighter reading, which showed increase in blood flow to different areas of the brain.
Literary analysis can, for instance, activate brain areas that are responsible for spatial perspective as well as areas associated with physical activity. This shows that deep reading involves the orchestration of multiple functions in the brain.
Activating the brain through focused reading can improve vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills. Engaging the brain throughout your life in mentally stimulating activities such as deep reading has also been shown to reduce cognitive decline.
In addition, book reading can promote empathy, social perception, and theory of mind. Having strong empathy and a good theory of mind can lead to better relationships and a good social network. A good social network has also been shown to be associated with a higher survival rate.
Research done at the Mindlab International, University of Sussex, found that reading reduces stress more than other relaxation methods. Participants’ stress levels and heart rates were increased through a range of tests and exercises before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.
Reading (68% reduction in stress) relaxes you more than listening to music (61%), drinking tea or coffee (54%) and walking (42%). What’s more, subjects’ heart rates decreased and muscle tension eased after only 6 minutes of silent reading.
Reading promotes relaxation and sleep
Reading can help you sleep if you make it a part of your bedtime ritual. It can help relax your body and mind, and signal that it is almost time to go to bed. It is best to be reading a print book in the evening if you are about to go to sleep, as it has been shown that evening use of e-readers and other light-emitting electronic devices before bedtime can disrupt circadian rhythm and disturb sleep.
Smartphone usage before bed can also negatively affect your sleep.
Reading staves off Alzheimer’s, dementia and mental decline
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered elderly patients who regularly played mentally challenging games or read books were 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, which affects four million Americans.
In a research paper published in Neurology, frequent brain exercises showed a decrease in mental decline for the elderly by 32%.
When a person reads a book, they have to remember many different characters – from the main one all the way down to a minor character mentioned only once – as well as the character’s backgrounds, history, ambitions, nuances, and behaviors. In addition to having to remember the characters, the reader must also remember the main plot, any subplots, and the arcs that occur throughout the story. All of these points throughout the story are a new memory in your brain, which means new synapses being created and existing ones being strengthened. By having this occur, your brain’s short-term memory and recall capabilities are strengthened.
In a study conducted by Gregory Berns, the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, patients underwent reading thirty pages of a book the night before and would come into the center for an MRI of their brains the next morning. Results showed there was a heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex. This is the area of the brain that’s associated with language and intelligence. Even though the participants weren’t reading the novel in the MRI machine, their brains were still retaining a heightened connectivity as if they were. This means the brain is more like a muscle, and by exercising this muscle, people have a more heightened intelligence.
Reading helps with depression
There is evidence for a reduction in depressive symptoms among participants of a reading group that took place over 12 months for people with diagnosed depression. Participants accessed the reading groups through a GP surgery ward and a mental health drop-in centre.
The participants in the reading group reported feeling more confident, more willing to talk, to listen and to interact with the other group participants. The key to the reading group’s success was that the participants became involved and a part of something.
Reading boosts happiness
The study, conducted by the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS), found that those who read reported better connections with others and greater feelings of happiness within themselves and with their life overall. 27% of respondents stated that reading a certain book had inspired them to make life changing decisions, such as ending a relationship or looking for a new job. 36% of respondents said that a book inspired them to travel, and 19% stated that it was a book that encouraged them to start a new hobby.
Reading builds social connections
As we’ve already discussed, engaging the brain throughout your life in mentally stimulating activities such as deep reading has been shown to reduce cognitive decline. When you are mentally sharp, you can keep up with friends.
Book reading is associated with a longer lifespan, according to the previously mentioned study, because reading “can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival.” Having strong empathy and a good theory of mind can lead to better relationships and a good social network.
A good social network will help you live longer. In fact, those who lack social connections are as affected as someone who smoked 15 cigarettes a day. This is because friends can provide support and a source of comfort, shielding one from the harmful impacts of stress. Stress can be detrimental to physical health and overall well being. Friends can also bring purpose and meaning into people’s lives. Loneliness has been associated with a greater risk in mortality.