The health benefits of reading – The San Diego Union-Tribune

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If you want to live a long, healthy life, be sure to exercise, eat your veggies, get plenty of sleep and surround yourself with family and friends.
Oh, and read a few good books each year, too.
Several studies in recent years indicate that reading — especially reading books — is beneficial to health, wellness and even longevity.
In 2016, research done by a team at the Yale University School of Public Health found that of more than 3,600 men and women 50 and older in a long-term health and retirement study, book readers — reading at least 3½ hours per week — had a 20 percent lower risk of dying over the next 12 years than non-book readers.
Books, even more than long magazine or newspaper articles, seem to enhance quality of life, the researchers said.
“You have to engage more, hold on to information longer,” says Avni Bavishi, one of the researchers and authors of the study done while she was completing her masters in chronic disease epidemiology at Yale. “I think there’s something about that deep reading that makes the effect stronger.”
Researchers speculated that books — longer and more complex than articles or standard online content — engage readers’ minds more and lead to “cognitive benefits that drive the effect of reading on longevity.”
Bavishi, now a medical student at Northwestern, says regular book readers can find relaxation in reading. That can be an oasis — an old-school refuge — in this era of constantly changing stimuli from the Internet and 24-hour news cycle. Lifelong readers, too, may develop better critical thinking skills, vocabulary and empathy that can improve quality of life. The researchers believe books promote “deep reading” that is a slow, immersive process. That cognitive engagement may help a reader over his or her lifetime to develop better skills for reasoning and concentration that can improve quality of life (better schools, jobs, income, standard of living). Plus, reading books can “promote empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence” that can help create what they call a “survival advantage.”
In fact, the researchers suggest those skills acquired from book reading can lead to “improved health behaviors,” says Bavishi, such as regular physical exercise — although more research needs to be done in that area, she says.
A study published in the journal Neurology in 2013 also cited the benefits of a lifetime of reading as a barrier to “late-life cognitive decline.”
It found that although there is no cure for dementia, “reading, writing and playing games” can slow the progress of that affliction.
“More frequent cognitive activity across the life span has an association with slower late-life cognitive decline that is independent of common neuropathic conditions,” wrote researchers.
Settling into an easy chair with a captivating book — be it a biography, novel or science fiction — can ease tension through engagement and escape. In a 2009 study at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, researchers found reading reduced stress levels by 68 percent, better even than listening to music or taking a walk. Stress reduction was indicated by a lower heart rate and reduced muscle tension.
Other studies show reading — especially before bedtime — promotes better sleep. It also can enhance social skills and can boost overall intelligence and academic success.
Of course, not all Americans are in the habit of reading books. In fact, almost 1 in 4 American adults (24 percent) say they haven’t read a book over the past year, according to a Pew Research study published in March.
Book readers tend to be more educated and have higher incomes. Seventy-seven percent of men and women who have attended college have read a book this past year, and 93 percent of adults with a college degree have read a book. Only 63 percent of adults with a high school degree or less say they’ve read a book. On the income scale, 64 percent of those making $30,000 or less annually report reading a book, compared with 87 percent of those making $75,000 or more.

In 2012, Stanford researchers — using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — tracked blood flow to the brain of men and women critically reading excerpts of a Jane Austen novel. They found positive physical results, including increased blood flow to the brain in general, not just to the areas responsible for “executive function.”
Professor Natalie Phillips, who was leading the project, told Stanford News that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Phillips also noted that blood flow increased during reading for pleasure — but to different areas of the brain.
The conclusion that reading books promotes health and wellness isn’t surprising to a couple of San Diegans who’ve been reading books their whole lives.
At 65 and retired, Carl Bobkoski of Rancho Santa Fe has plenty of time now, and reads about four hours a day. He estimates he reads about 12 books a year, while also reading newspapers, magazine and journal articles and anything that piques his interest.
He comes from a family of readers. His parents didn’t have a TV until he was in the fifth grade, and his mother at 88 is still an avid reader. Bobkoski says reading brings him mental exercise and stimulation.
“It can even be quite inspirational or enlightening,” he says. “I would assume those things are good for you. … Exercise is good for the brain and enhances the quality of life. Definitely reading does that, especially if you try to read closely and carefully.”
Melissa Jones, 28, of San Diego is the director of marketing for the Women’s Museum of California at Liberty Station and helps moderate the museum’s book club, Read Like a Girl. She reads a couple of books each month, usually one for the club and one of her own choosing.
“Reading is a relaxation thing,” she says. “You can get into a different world and kind of forget what’s going on in reality and just kind of focus. Kind of like a form of meditation.”
She concurs with the observation of the Yale study that reading a book — rather than other content — is different and possibly more beneficial to well-being, because of the “long-term investment” a reader has. Reading may not be on that standard recipe for health — exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep habits and social engagement — but she believes it has great value.
“When you’re reading, you’re becoming engaged with society,” she says. “And whatever you’re reading, your mind is being exercised.”
Williams is a San Diego freelance writer.
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