Benefits of reading books: How it can positively affect your life
In the 11th century, a Japanese woman known as Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, a 54-chapter story of courtly seduction believed to be the world’s first novel.
Nearly 2,000 years later, people the world over are still engrossed by novels—even in an era where stories appear on handheld screens and disappear 24 hours later.
Reading books benefits both your physical and mental health, and those benefits can last a lifetime. They begin in early childhood and continue through the senior years.
Reading strengthens your brain
A growing body of research indicates that reading literally changes your mind. Using MRI scans, researchers have confirmed that reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. As your reading ability matures, those networks also get stronger and more sophisticated.
In one study conducted in 2013, researchers used functional MRI scans to measure the effect of reading a novel on the brain. Study participants read the novel Pompeii over a period of nine days. As tension built in the story, more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity. Brain scans showed that throughout the reading period and for days afterward, brain connectivity increased, especially in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that responds to physical sensations like movement and pain.
Builds your vocabulary
Reading researchers as far back as the 1960s have discussed what’s known as “the Matthew effect,” a term that refers to biblical verse Matthew 13:12: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
The Matthew effect sums up the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer—a concept that applies as much to vocabulary as it does to money.
Researchers have found that students who read books regularly, beginning at a young age, gradually develop large vocabularies. Reading books is the best way to increase your exposure to new words, learned in context.
Helps prevent age-related cognitive decline
The National Institute on Aging recommends reading books and magazines as a way of keeping your mind engaged as you grow older.
Although research has not proven conclusively that reading books prevents diseases like Alzheimer’s, studies show that seniors who read and solve math problems every day maintain and improve their cognitive functioning.
And the earlier you start, the better. A 2013 study conducted by Rush University Medical Center found that people who have engaged in mentally stimulating activities all their lives were less likely to develop the plaques, lesions and tau-protein tangles found in the brains of people with dementia.
In 2009, a group of researchers measured the effects of yoga, humor and reading on the stress levels of students in demanding health science programs in the United States. The study found that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humor did.
The authors concluded, “Since time constraints are one of the most frequently cited reasons for high stress levels reported by health science students, 30 minutes of one of these techniques can be easily incorporated into their schedule without diverting a large amount of time from their studies.”
Prepares you for a good night’s rest
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic suggest reading as part of a regular sleep routine. For best results, you may want to choose a print book rather than reading on a screen, since the light emitted by your device could keep you awake and lead to other unwanted health outcomes. Doctors also recommend you read somewhere other than your bedroom if you have trouble falling asleep.
May even help you live longer
A long-term health and retirement study followed a cohort of 3,635 adult participants for a period of 12 years, finding that those who read books survived around two years longer than those who either didn’t read or who read magazines and other forms of media. The study also concluded that people who read more than 3½ hours every week were 23 percent likely to live longer than those who didn’t read at all.
What should you be reading?
So, what should you be reading? The short answer is: Whatever you can get your hands on.
If you are pressed for time, devote a few minutes daily to a blog on a niche topic. If you are looking for an escape, fantasy or historical fiction can transport you out of your own surroundings and into another world altogether.
One thing to note: Do not read solely on a device. Flip through print books, too. Studies have shown repeatedly that people who read print books score higher on comprehension tests and remember more of what they read than people who read the same material in a digital form. That may be, in part, because people tend to read print more slowly than they read digital content.
It is never too late to begin taking advantage of the many physical and psychological benefits waiting for you in the pages of a good book.