By Dr. Mercola
Do you enjoy sitting down with a good book? This is one hobby you should feel free to indulge in without guilt, as reading is linked to a variety of benefits, both mental and physical.
In fact, new research published in the journal Social Science & Medicine revealed book readers live an average of two years longer than non-readers. Specifically, compared to people who read no books, those who read for up to 3.5 hours a week had a 17 percent lower risk of dying over the next 12 years.
Those who read for more than 3.5 hours a week fared even better; they had a 23 percent lower risk of dying prematurely. Broken down, this means that reading for just 30 minutes a day may offer a major health advantage.
This was true even after the researchers controlled for other factors that might influence lifespan, such as age, race, gender, education level, income, health, employment and more.
Interestingly, reading newspapers and periodicals also offered longevity benefits, although not to the same extent as books.
Reading Reduces Stress, Enhances Empathy and More
Research conducted by cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis and colleagues from the University of Sussex in England revealed that reading is a powerful form of stress relief. Volunteers had their stress levels and heart rates increased and then tried a variety of stress-reduction methods to relax.
Reading worked best, outshining other stress-reduction techniques like listening to music, taking a walk or having a cup of tea. Stress levels declined by 68 percent after participants read for just six minutes, leading Lewis to say, "Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation."1
When you read, your mind is distracted from everyday worries and anxiety, while your muscles tend to relax. In addition, research shows reading leads to improvements in brain function, including significant increases in connectivity that persist for several days after the reading takes place.2
Dr. Gregory S. Berns, director of Emory University's Center for Neuropolicy, told the Huffington Post:3
"At a minimum, we can say that reading stories — especially those with strong narrative arcs — reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains."
In addition, reading literary fiction was shown to enhance a skill known as theory of mind, which is the ability to understand others' mental states4 and show increased empathy.
Other research that used historical data on about 50,000 twins found that high levels of schooling (at least 13 years) are associated with three years longer life expectancy than low levels of schooling (less than 10 years).5 In this case, it's not reading, exactly, that's linked with this benefit. According to researchers:6
"The real societal value of schooling may … extend beyond pure labor market and economic growth returns. From a policy perspective, schooling may therefore be a vehicle for improving longevity and health, as well as equality along these dimensions."
Reading to Children Improves Their Brain Function
A study presented at a 2015 meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies revealed what happens when you read to a child.
Using brain scanners, the researchers found that reading to children from an early age activated brain areas including the occipital lobes, linked to visual imagery and the parietal lobes, linked to understanding the meaning of language.7,8
Dr. John S. Hutton, of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, told Reuters:9
"In one of the most intriguing aspects, some of the greatest activation was in the visual part, the occipital lobe … A lot of it's probably the task, imagining in their brain what's going on in the story.
These kids have more experience with seeing what they're hearing … Parents should definitely read often and read widely," with back-and-forth conversation with kids, going beyond what's on the page."
While the benefits of reading to children from an early age are well established, this is the first study to use brain scans to show just why that might be.
Considering that reading to your kids is simple, enjoyable and free if you get books from your local public library, this is one strategy that virtually everyone can use to give their kids an intellectual head start and a solid cognitive foundation upon which to grow and expand. As reported by the organization Reach Out & Read:10
"Once children start school, difficulty with reading contributes to school failure, which can increase the risk of absenteeism, leaving school, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy — all of which can perpetuate the cycles of poverty and dependency."
Additional benefits of reading aloud to children include:11
• Reading aloud is the single most important activity leading to language development
• Builds motivation, curiosity and memory
• Helps children cope during times of stress or tragedy
• Exposes children to story and print knowledge as well as rare words and ideas not often found in day-to-day conversation or screen time
• Helps children practice listening
Reading May Slow Memory Decline in the Elderly and Ease Depression
Reading offers benefits beyond childhood and well into adulthood and beyond. In a study of nearly 300 people, those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities such as reading had slower memory decline than those who didn't.
Reading and engaging in other mentally enriching activities later in life was associated with a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline.12 Among people who read self-help books, meanwhile, lower rates of depression were reported, even in cases of severe depression.13
Reading fiction books has also shown to be particularly beneficial, in this case for empathy. When a reader is engrossed in a fiction novel and becomes emotionally transported into the story, it leads to higher empathy in the reader.14
Reading in a Quiet Place Is Important
Not everyone has access to a quiet place to read and live, and this, too, can have repercussions on physical and mental health, particularly among children.
Children exposed to chronic aircraft noise, for instance, are more likely to have impairment in reading comprehension and long-term memory.15 In addition, background noise may also have a significant impact on toddlers' ability to learn language.
Most studies into early word learning take place in a quiet setting, but real-life learning often takes place in noisy environments. One recent study found that 2-year-olds were able to learn new words when there was quiet background noise but not when the background noise was loud.16
A second experiment similarly found the toddlers could learn the meaning of new words in the presence of loud background noise only if they had previously been taught the words in a quiet setting.
This underscores the challenges facing many poor children, who are more likely to live in loud environments. Study co-author Jenny R. Saffran, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, said:17
"Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words corresponded to may help very young children master new vocabulary."
In related news, children's book publisher Scholastic released a survey in 2015 showing only 31 percent of 6- to 17-year-olds surveyed had read a book for fun almost daily. This is down from 37 percent in 2010.18 If you'd like your child to be a frequent reader as an older child, adolescent and adult, the report found you should continuing reading aloud even after your child learns to read himself.
Being read to aloud early and often predicted frequent reading among children ages 6-11. Spending less time online using a computer was also important.
Seventy-Two Percent of Americans Have Read a Book in the Past Year
Taking the time to read is often viewed as an indulgent pleasure, one many people may feel they don't have time for. But you needn't feel guilty for relaxing with a good book. You might even want to carve out at least 20 or 30 minutes to do so daily.
The bottom line is, this simple activity gives your body and mind some much-needed time to recharge and regroup from its ordinary responsibilities. At the same time, it exercises your brain and your emotional health and gives you a chance to engage in creative and imaginative thought.
Fortunately, even with the temptation to binge on recorded TV shows or movies, or surf the web instead, 72 percent of U.S. adults say they have read a book in the past year.19 Even better, the average number of books read in the previous year was 12, which means many are able to read at least one book a month.
If you want to make time for more reading in two weeks. You can also form an informal book club with friends by reading the same book your life, try setting a reading goal for yourself, such as finishing a book every week or and then getting together to discuss it.