Readers know that there’s nothing else quite like curling up with a good book. In addition to being a timeless pleasure, though, reading can also have numerous health benefits that go beyond entertainment. Literature expands the mind, improves our mental health, and can contribute to our overall well-being. On September 6th, we celebrated National Read a Book Day. But every day is the perfect day to engage in this pastime and reap the benefits; share a story with a loved one, read to your grandkids, revisit an old favorite or splurge on the latest bestseller.
Strengthens the Brain
Reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech, which is what you do if socializing or watching TV. Parts of the brain used for functions such as vision, language, and associative learning all have to connect in a complex and specific way. The required brain connectivity leads to increased blood flow to provide oxygen and other nutrients that allow the neurons and synapses to “fire” efficiently. The more you read, the stronger this network grows.
So just like physical exercise gradually increases your strength and ability to use certain muscles, reading builds a better, stronger brain. In one 2013 study, researchers used MRI scans to show that reading a novel caused increased brain connectivity throughout the reading period and for days afterward, especially in the somatosensory cortex, which is the part of the brain that responds to physical sensations such as movement and pain.
Prevents Cognitive Decline
By making your brain a stronger, better “muscle,” reading helps to reduce the impact of age-related cognitive decline. A study conducted in 2013 found that people who’ve engaged in mentally stimulating activities (namely, reading, puzzles, etc) all their lives were less likely to develop the plaques, lesions, and tau-protein tangles found in the brains of people with dementia. Newer research has indicated that reading may also help prevent beta-amyloid deposits (a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease) from developing on the brain. It is thought that the mental stimulation provided by reading helps the brain build reserves of healthy brain cells and maintain the connections between them, which can help compensate for the damage caused by Alzheimers.
Improves Your Mental Health
In addition to making you more intelligent, with your big vocabulary and your neurobiologically stimulated brain, reading can also improve your mental health. In 2009 a group of researchers analyzed the effects of yoga, humor, and reading on the stress levels of students in demanding health science programs in the United States. They found that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humor did. Another 2008 study done by Sussex University researchers showed that reading may reduce stress by as much as 68%.
Bibliotherapy is also becoming a more widely accepted method of alleviating the symptoms of depression. Health practitioners use books to support the mental health of groups facing various challenges through reading, reflection, and discussion of specific literature. More recently, a case was made to push bibliotherapy as a low-cost and accessible intervention to improve the mental health of healthcare workers during the pandemic. Even without the structure of therapy or group support, reading fiction provides a healthy escape from your own world, and it can diminish feelings of isolation or estrangement that are common in depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Increases Empathy, Improves Relationships
A fascinating study conducted in 2005 found that people who frequently read fiction were associated with better social ability, and that the tendency to get absorbed in a story directly correlated with higher empathy scores. In subsequent studies, this discovery has been supported, and further analysis shows that a lifetime exposure to narrative fiction was associated with more perspective-taking and empathy.
Researchers call the heightened ability to understand the feelings and beliefs of others “Theory of Mind,” and it’s a set of skills that are essential for building, navigating, and maintaining social relationships. In other words, reading fiction can make you a better person.
Lengthens Your Lifespan
Yes; in addition to making you a kinder, more intelligent person with better mental health, reading has also been proven to lengthen your lifespan. A study led by Yale University School of Public Health researchers revealed that adults who reported reading books for more than 3.5 hours per week were 23% less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, compared with those who did not read books at all. They studied 3,635 people over the age of 50, and overall adults who read books survived almost 2 years longer than those who didn’t read. The researchers were unable to pinpoint the exact mechanism that allowed for these results, but they conjectured that it had to do with the boost of brain cell connectivity that reading provides.
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- Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain at Any Age
- The 12 Best Podcasts for Book Lovers
- Book Review: From Strength to Strength