If there were something simple and enjoyable—and even free—that would cut your risk of dying (from anything!) by more than 20 percent, would you do it?
If you said, “yes,” it might be time to take a trip to the library.
A new study from Yale University found that people who read on a regular basis are up to 23 percent less likely to die from any cause than non-readers.
Read a book, not a magazine
The study looked at more than 3,600 people. All were over 50. It followed them for twelve whole years, not just the space of a few months. And though researchers can’t tell us exactly why reading seems to have this effect, the results showed that the regular readers added about two years to their lives.
What they read, and how long they read, also seemed to have an effect. Those who read books, as opposed to other things like magazines, and who read for just three and a half hours per week—=the equivalent of only half an hour each day—were seventeen percent less likely than non-readers to die of any cause during the 12-year follow-up period. And people who spent more than three and a half hours per week reading books were a shocking twenty-three percent less likely to die.
This may be surprising since it flies in the face of all we’ve heard about sitting being bad for our health. But in fact, this isn’t the first study to find that readers live longer than non-readers. Previous studies, however, have done something this one didn’t—they’ve lumped all reading material together. Books, magazines, newspapers—all have been treated the same.
This study broke reading down into either books or magazines and newspapers. Those who preferred magazines and newspapers also tended to live longer, though the effect was much weaker. Magazine readers were only 11% less likely to die than non-readers, and then only if they read for seven hours or more per week. That’s a lot of Better Homes and Gardens or Entertainment Weekly, but all in all it’s a very intriguing finding.
Cause and effect? Or something else?
Of course, just because things are associated doesn’t mean that one causes another. It could be some facet of book-reading other than the act of reading itself that conveys longevity. It could be that book-readers simply have less stress than non-readers or magazine readers. On the other hand, it could be that immersing yourself in a good book actually lowers stress, and this translates into health benefits.
We’re just not sure. However, the researchers controlled for as many factors as possible: age, race, sex, state of health, and more. They took into account marital status, social class, education, and whether people were depressed—a common problem among the elderly. None of these factors appeared to make a difference. People lived longer, regardless of their age, sex, class, race or anything else.
They even considered whether readers lived longer because they were more intelligent to begin with. To test this idea, they gave study participants cognitive tests at the beginning of the study and three years later. What they found was intriguing. Although the survival advantage didn’t appear to come down to basic smarts, reading regularly—and reading books in particular—did have a positive effect on cognitive ability. This backs up what we’ve already been told about reading to stave off dementia. And it bolsters other research showing that reading novels causes new connections to form in your brain.
Why the striking difference between books and other types of reading matter? The researchers can’t tell us that—though they’d like to do further studies. They’d also like to look at fiction versus non-fiction and whether audiobooks have the same effects as printed books. In the meantime, here’s the bottom line:
Why books seem to have this effect doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they do. Here’s something that is virtually effortless, that is free—if you visit your local library—and that can have a profound effect on your health. And not just on your health, but on your very mortality. If you already love books, more power to you. If your reading currently consists of newsstand magazines, this is a good excuse to broaden your horizons and tackle something that requires a little more time.
And if you don’t read at all, or you stop with the morning paper, you might be missing out on something more powerful than Big Pharma’s drugs.
Where to start?
If you’re not much of a reader, the idea may be off-putting. Taking the time to read a book might make you feel like you’re wasting valuable time you could spend doing something else. Or you might feel like you just don’t have time. You might think there aren’t any books that would appeal to you out there. In short, you might not know just where to start. The first thing to do is to get rid of any preconceptions you have about books or reading.
As an avid—and “picky”—reader myself, I’ve found that a lot of what we believe about books simply isn’t true. “Literary” doesn’t necessarily mean “good,” and “mass market” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Good is whatever appeals to you personally, whether that’s Tolstoy and Hemingway or bodice-ripper romances. “Good” is in the mind’s eye of the reader, and what anyone else thinks of your choices is irrelevant. And the old saw about not being able to judge a book by its cover? Total hooey. The cover is usually—though not always--a very good indicator of the quality of the book inside.
Here’s how I choose my books, and I’m seldom disappointed:
Go to the “new fiction” section of your local library and choose a book whose cover really appeals to you. Read a couple paragraphs of the beginning and see if the writing is sound and it piques your interest. If it does, then read the book description on the back cover. If it sounds like your kind of story, check it out. And if you don’t know what “your” kind of story is, pick several different genres and see what you like best.
As for the actual reading—you don’t have to read for an entire half-hour at a time. Read while you have your morning coffee or on your lunch break. Take a paperback or ebook with you and read while you’re standing in line at the store or the bank. Keep a book in the bathroom. The truth is we all have time to read, if we just make the effort. There are endless opportunities to read in short snatches when you might be doing nothing at all.
And as the study shows, turning these short intervals into reading time might be one of the best things you can do for your health.