Reading Books Can Make You Live Longer, And Reading Fiction Can Improve This Positive Character Trait, Studies Suggest

Fiction and other books increase lifespan.

A deeper look at a Health and Retirement Study involving thousands of men and women found that reading books might increase our survival rates. Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale University School of Public Health, and her colleagues published their findings in Social Science & Medicine.

The team examined data pertaining to 3,635 adult seniors who had self-reported their reading habits and took part in follow-ups for an average of 12 years. During this span, their survival was monitored.

“Compared with adults who did not read books, those who read books for up to 3 ½ hours each week were 17 percent less likely to die over the 12-year follow-up, while those who read for more than 3 ½ hours weekly were 23 percent less likely to die,” Medical News Today reported this week.

Reading magazines and newspapers also showed better survival rates, but the effects were not as significant as the effects from book reading, the analysis claims. The results had accounted for the age, wealth, education, marital status, sex and health statuses of the study participants. They weren’t able to explain the exact reason why reading books seems to lead to longer lives, but the team suspects that it’s because reading books offers cognitive benefits such as brain cell connectivity.

“Book reading contributed to a survival advantage that was significantly greater than that observed for reading newspapers or magazines (tT2 = 90.6, p < 0.001; tT3 = 67.9, p < 0.001). Compared to non-book readers, book readers had a 23-month survival advantage at the point of 80% survival in the unadjusted model. A survival advantage persisted after adjustment for all covariates (HR =.80, p <.01), indicating book readers experienced a 20% reduction in risk of mortality over the 12 years of follow up compared to non-book readers. Cognition mediated the book reading-survival advantage (p = 0.04). These findings suggest that the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them.”

Recently, another benefit of reading books was found, but this benefit was found among people who read fictional books. According to an article in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences from Keith Oatley, from the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, reading literary fiction books seems to be able to make people more empathetic towards people and events in the real world.

“There’s a bit of a buzz about it now,” Oatley said, according to a different report in Medical News Today. “In part, because researchers are recognizing that there’s something important about imagination.”

The fiction doesn’t even have to be extremely descriptive, Oatley says.

“Just three such phrases were enough to produce the most activation of the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and memory. This points to the power of the reader’s own mind.

“Writers don’t need to describe scenarios exhaustively to draw out the reader’s imagination – they only need to suggest a scene.”

Oatley believes that reading fiction improves social skills in the same way that a flight simulator can improve a person’s flying skills. In his research, Oatley found that people who read fictional books had significantly higher test scores for empathy than those who read non-fictional books, even after accounting for personality differences that could alter scores and increase fiction reading.

“The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social. What’s distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people — with friends, with lovers, with children — that aren’t pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience.”

Oakley thinks that given how intertwined storytelling is with human evolution coupled with the information they are learning about its impact on empathy, that our culture has been rather dismissive in calling it merely entertainment.

“I think there is also something more important going on.”

[Image via Pixabay]