By Colin McCandless, Contributing Writer
REGION – If you want to stay healthy and live longer, research shows that eating a nutritious diet and maintaining a regular exercise routine, when combined, are two keys to lowering your risk of mortality. But what about that Steinbeck novel sitting on your bookshelf? Can “The Grapes of Wrath” do more for your body than simply feed your mind?
Books possess the power to transport us to faraway places and teach us about universal themes of love and loss and happiness and grief, yet a study conducted by Yale University’s School of Public Health published in the academic journal Social Science & Medicine also identified a link between reading and longer life spans. The authors of the report, Avni Bavishi, Martin D. Slade and Becca R. Levy examined whether people who read books enjoy an advantage of greater longevity over individuals who either don’t read books or read other kinds of content such as periodicals (newspapers and magazines).
Study involved thousands of participants over many years
To investigate they questioned a cohort of 3,635 participants in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study led by the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research, asking them to share information about their reading habits. It followed respondents over a 12-year period from 2001-2012, adjusting for variables such as age, sex, race, education, comorbidities, self-rated health, income, marital status and depression.
While the authors acknowledged that previous studies have explored the effect of reading on mortality rate, they qualified that none of these had compared reading material type. Their hypothesis proposed that reading books would give a person a “survival advantage” over someone who reads magazines and newspapers due to the greater cognitive benefits derived from the former activity.
They arrived at this hypothesis because of two cognitive processes involved in reading books that they contended would contribute to this survival advantage. The first is described as “deep reading,” a form of cognitive engagement that can hone critical thinking skills, vocabulary, reasoning and concentration. The second is that reading books can bolster “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence,” which the authors note are “cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival.”
Book readers live nearly two years longer
When compared to non-readers the study found that readers had a 23-month survival advantage over those who shunned books completely. The advantage remained when controlling for factors such as age, sex, comorbidities, education, health and wealth. It found a 20 percent reduction in mortality for readers compared to non-readers.
Furthermore, the results revealed that people who only read books for an average of 30 minutes a day—roughly a chapter a day—”showed a survival advantage” over non-readers. And even among those study participants who didn’t read books but still read newspapers and magazines, reading provided a survival advantage.
The authors determined that “the survival advantage was due to the effect that book reading had on cognition.” This particular study, however, did not investigate whether e-books or audiobooks can have a similar impact on longevity or scrutinize fiction versus nonfiction readers or specific genres.
Less TV in favor of more reading
Offering recommendations based on their findings, the authors cited a figure from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that persons over 65 watch an average of 4.4 hours of television per day. They advised that this demographic should convert some of that screen time into reading books to boost their health and potentially extend their lives.
Since most study participants perused periodicals more than books, they also suggested swapping out some of those copies of Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal for books so individuals can reap the full survival advantage benefits of reading. After all, a chapter a day just might keep the doctor away.