The Benefits of Reading: Read More to Live Longer

woman reading

YOUR LIBRARIAN always said there were benefits to reading outside of the classroom, and it turns out they were right. A new study conducted by researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland finds that retirees can drastically reduce their risks of premature death if they engage regularly in social groups — specifically book clubs and “any other groups that a person sees as an important part of who they are. Sure, you can do whatever you want to reap these life-lengthening benefits, so long as it lets you interact with others and gives you a sense of identity, but why wouldn’t you want to read more to live longer?

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the benefits of reading, of course, but definitive proof that something as simple as taking part in a book club can increase longevity shouldn’t go without notice.

When I covered this topic for Bustle, I noted that readers of a certain age — namely, the Millennial crowd — weren’t really the target demographic for the University of Queensland study. That is, they aren’t the ones who will gain the most from this information. However, starting good habits now allows you to reap all kinds of extra benefits, as this TED Talk from Jane McGonigal shows. Think of them as interest you can earn over the remaining decades of your life.

So sure, maintaining your relationships with other human beings by taking part in a group activity is good for you. But how, exactly, can reading help you live longer? Let’s look at a few of the facts.

Reading for six minutes reduces stress levels by almost 70 percent. Stress can negatively impact your mental and physical well-being. Working a stressful job, being unemployed, and not having health insurance have all been shown to shorten lifespans. Although there’s no way to avoid stress altogether, reading is a great way to reduce your stress levels and stay healthy.

It’s also one of the many activities that can prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It doesn’t matter what age you are, says the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation; you can keep your brain healthy and prevent degenerative disease, simply by reading.

That’s because one of the benefits of reading on a regular basis is improvement of memory, analytical thinking, and concentration. Reading requires you to recall earlier events and statements in order to remain engaged with the text. This forms new memories, which makes your brain stronger overall by reinforcing existing information pathways. Reading also fights the detrimental effects of our short attention spans — thanks, Internet! — by, again, forcing us to remain engaged for longer periods of time.

A 2007 report on reading from the National Endowment for the Arts found that the trend toward reading less as one ages affects more than just the individual in question. Declines in reading habits among teens and adults “have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications,” because “deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting.” Non-proficient readers are also more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated, both of which decrease longevity.

According to a 2006 study by Keith Oatley of Greater Good Magazine, “reading fiction is associated with increased social ability.” Another study from the University of Buffalo found that reading fiction increases empathy. The University of Queensland study shows us that social group participation has a positive impact on our lifespans, so it’s not so large a leap to think that increasing the skill with which we interact with others could give us a few more good years of life.

Then there’s Iceland. Icelanders live longer than almost anyone else on the planet. Iceland is also, perhaps, the most literary country. One in ten Icelanders will publish a book in her lifetime. Although geneticists attribute Icelandic longevity to inherited resilience, I can’t help but wonder if the reading doesn’t have a little to do with it.

So what does all of this mean for you, the young adult reader of LadyClever?

If you don’t already have a regular reading habit, I cannot over-stress the importance of carving out time to read. Joining a book club is a great way to encourage yourself to get into the reading routine, because you have a handful of fellow members to hold you accountable for reading the club pick, month after month.

But, you might be thinking, I don’t read at all! Taking up a new hobby like this can be daunting, but don’t worry. You don’t have to make it through In Search of Lost Time in one sitting to get the full benefits of reading. As we’ve already seen, even six minutes of page-turning can improve your life and your health.

You don’t have to read anything you’re not interested in to start reaping the benefits of reading, either. Reading isn’t a habit that ropes you into finishing every book you start. It might take a while to find what you like, but, once you do, you’re in for a wild ride.

Click here to see Lady Clever’s book reviews and recommendations.