Flaubert had it that “the one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy”. It turns out that reading doesn’t only help us to tolerate existence, but actually prolongs it, after a new study found that people who read books for 30 minutes a day lived longer than those who didn’t read at all.
The study, which is published in the September issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine, looked at the reading patterns of 3,635 people who were 50 or older. On average, book readers were found to live for almost two years longer than non-readers.
Respondents were separated into those who read for 3.5 hours or more a week, those who read for up to 3.5 hours a week, and those who didn’t read at all, controlling for factors such as gender, race and education. The researchers discovered that up to 12 years on, those who read for more than 3.5 hours a week were 23% less likely to die, while those who read for up to 3.5 hours a week were 17% less likely to die
“When readers were compared to non-readers at 80% mortality (the time it takes 20% of a group to die), non-book readers lived 85 months (7.08 years), whereas book readers lived 108 months (9.00 years) after baseline,” write the researchers. “Thus, reading books provided a 23 month survival advantage.”Overall, during follow-up, 33% of non-book readers died, compared to 27% of book readers, write the academics Avni Bavishi, Martin Slade and Becca Levy from the Yale University School of Public Health, in their paper A Chapter a Day: Association of Book Reading With Longevity.
Bavishi said that the more that respondents read, the longer they lived, but that “as little as 30 minutes a day was still beneficial in terms of survival”.
The paper also specifically links the reading of books, rather than periodicals, to a longer life. “We found that reading books provided a greater benefit than reading newspapers or magazines. We uncovered that this effect is likely because books engage the reader’s mind more – providing more cognitive benefit, and therefore increasing the lifespan,” Bavishi said.
In the paper, the academics write that there are two cognitive processes involved in reading books that could create a “survival advantage”. First, reading books promote the “slow, immersive process” of “deep reading”, a cognitive engagement that “occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content present.
“We had seen some mixed effects in previous literature that seemed to indicate that there may be a survival advantage to general reading; however, we were impressed with the magnitude of the difference of effect between reading books and reading newspapers/magazines,” said Bavishi.“Cognitive engagement may explain why vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills are improved by exposure to books,” they write. Second, books “can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival”, they say.
Although respondents to the survey did not specify the genre of the books they were reading, the paper says it is likely that most of the people they surveyed were reading fiction, pointing to a survey from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009 that found that 87% of book readers choose fiction. They suggest that future analysis could look at “whether there are additional health benefits from book reading, other than extended survival; whether there are similar effects reading ebooks and audiobooks, which may be more likely to be read in a non-sedentary manner; and whether nonfiction vs fiction, as well as various genres, have different effects”.
The academics point to previous research which found that people over 65 spend an average of 4.4 hours a day watching television, and say that “efforts to redirect leisure time into reading books could prove to be beneficial in terms of survival for this population”. The researchers also point out that their study participants spent “considerably” more time reading periodicals than books – on average, 3.92 hours for books and 6.10 hours for periodicals – and suggest they switch to books, because “the survival advantage is significantly stronger for book reading”.
They conclude that “the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them … The robustness of our findings suggests that reading books may not only introduce some interesting ideas and characters, it may also give more years of reading.”