Some say reading novels is escapism from real life—or even a way to live vicariously. Reading is also a sedentary activity and might be likened to watching television because of its passivity. Yet a new study from researchers at the Yale School of Public Health shows that reading novels increases longevity by up to two years. The researchers summed up the study: “The benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them.”
The cohort of people studied by the researchers consisted of 3,635 participants in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study. All were over 50 years of age. Reading habits were one measurement taken at “baseline”—the beginning and norm for the study’s participants. It was found that book readers survived non-book-readers by some 23 months. Book readers experienced an average of a 20% reduction in mortality risk for 12 years after the study too.
“These findings suggest that the benefits of reading books
include a longer life in which to read them.”
It’s the Book that Counts toward Longevity
Reading by itself doesn’t carry the benefit; it depends on the media that is read. Those who read newspapers and magazines did not do as well as avowed book readers. Nor does a little sporadic reading do the trick. The people who benefited the most from book reading were at it about 3.5 hours per week. That’s only about a half hour a day. Fiction readers had a 23% higher survival rate, whereas non-fiction readers had a 17% higher survival rate. The average was 20% for readers of all kinds of books as opposed to readers of other kinds of media.
Book readers survived non-book-readers by some 23 months.
They experienced an average of a 20% reduction in mortality risk
for 12 years after the study too.
Reading Books and Longevity Go Hand in Hand
All other possible factors were also taken into consideration in the study. The results remained the same: book reading gave a boon of almost two years of life. The significance of the findings was such that the researchers say novel reading has survival value comparable to the benefits of doing exercise. Yet they are cautious. Although other factors affecting longevity were ruled out, the researchers do not conclude that book reading causes prolonged lives. It is, however, associated with longer lives; in other words, reading and greater longevity go hand in hand.
Researchers do not know why this is so. Reading, of course, keeps the brain active, which is important to longevity. Another possibility is that reading stimulates emotional connections to others, also a healthy state of being.
Readers Connect to Others
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker cites figures that show reading builds empathy for others. In this way, reading contributes to altruism and helping behavior—behavior known to benefit both the individual and society.
Pinker says, “Technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. And in some cases a bestselling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led to a change in policy.”
Empathic, altruistic behavior carries great health benefits throughout life. In his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Steven Post, an ethicist at Case Western University, noted this. He wrote that a University of California at Berkeley study showed that people over 55 who volunteered with two different organizations had a 44% lesser risk for mortality than those who did not volunteer.
Do people who read books have more empathy and benevolence toward others? Could that explain the increase in longevity? Perhaps.
The next time the urge comes to dive into a Jane Austen novel or crack out that latest John Grisham bestseller, there is no need to resist. It’s not escaping from reality. It is creating a new reality of a longer life. With longevity, there is more time to enjoy all kinds of activities, including more reading and meaningful connections to others.
Bavishi, A., Slade, M.D., Levy, B. R. (September 2016). A Chapter a Day: Association of Book Reading with Longevity. Social Science and Medicine, 164: 44-48. Abstract. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27471129. Retrieved August 31, 2016.
Buttner, J. (August 13, 2016). Reading Prolongs, Life, Yale Study Shows. Regal Tribune. Available at http://www.regaltribune.com/reading-prolongs-life-yale-study/27077. Retrieved September 1, 2016.
Erenfeld, T. (August 23, 2016). Want to Add Two Years to Your Life? Read a Novel. The Weekly Standard. Available at http://www.weeklystandard.com/want-to-add-two-years-to-your-life-read-a-novel/article/2003940. Retrieved September 1, 2016.
Pinker, Steven. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Penguin Books, the Penguin Group. P. 177.
Post, Steven. (2007). Why Good Things Happen to Good People. New York: Broadway Books, an imprint of The Doubleday Broadway Publishing, Group, a division of Random House.