Want to stay healthy? Read regularly

There’s nothing quite like becoming immersed in a good novel for many readers, it is a way of fuelling the imagination, providing a period of escape from the more laborious aspects of daily life, at least temporarily. But increasingly, researchers are finding that reading may offer some very real benefits for health and well-being.

Experts reported on a study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, that reading books could increase lifespan. The researchers from Yale University School of Public Health revealed that adults who reported reading books for more than three and half hours per week were 23 per cent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, compared with those who did not read books.

Although researchers were unable to identify the specific mechanisms by which reading may boost longevity, they pointed to previous studies which establish that reading can increase connectivity between brain cells, possibly lowering the risk of neurodegenerative diseases that can shorten lifespan.

Will reading for pleasure also confer other health benefits, too? Well, in a new review, psychologists in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, claim fiction may be more beneficial than we realise given, that it has the ability to encourage empathy.


Improved empathy not specific to literary fiction

More and more, researchers are developing an increasing interest in how fiction might affect the mind. They are recognising that there’s something important about imagination and that it is partly fuelled by increased utilisation of brain imaging in the field of psychology.

For instance, one study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the brain’s response to imagination-inducing phrases, such as “a dark blue carpet” or an “orange-striped pencil” found these phases were enough to produce the most activation of the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and memory.

From the study’s finding, they pointed out that fiction is a “simulation of social worlds,” and “similar to people who improve their flying skills in a flight simulator, those who read fiction might improve their social skills. Fiction might be the mind’s flight simulator.”

Compared with subjects who read non-fictional books, the study found that those who read fictional books had significantly higher test scores, indicating a much higher level of empathy. This ironically was after accounting for individual differences in personality and other characteristics.

Studies have indicated that increased empathy may not only occur with literary fiction. Evidence to date suggests that any form of fictional media that involves the reader or viewer engaging with the characters may lead to improvement in empathy and other social skills in the real world.

Now reading books is not just a popular pastime; perhaps learning more about how it could improve health and well-being will encourage you to shun the TV for the library.


Reading can reduce stress

Stress contributes to around 60 per cent of all human illness and disease. Experts say that stress can raise the risks of stroke and heart disease by 50 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively. Nonetheless, reading can help to reduce stress and stop it from becoming a serious health issue.

According to a 2009 study conducted by the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, reading can reduce stress levels by as much as 68 per cent, even more than listening to music or going for a walk.

They found that participants who engaged in just six minutes of reading – whether a newspaper or a book – experienced a slowed heart rate and reduced muscle tension.

Why is this so? Being engrossed in a book allows an escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination. This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination.


Reading enhances mental agility in old age

With ageing, brain slows down and as such cognitive tasks that were once found easy such as remembering a name or a house number may become more challenging.

Experts in many studies have shown that reading could help slow down or even prevent cognitive decline, and it may even help stave off more severe forms of cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease.


Reading can improve sleep

Smartphones and laptops have become our regular bedtime friends. But research indicated that this habit could wreak havoc on your sleep.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that using a smartphone just before bedtime is linked to shorter sleep duration and poorer sleep quality because the light emitted from the devices reduces production of melatonin in the brain — hormone that tells us when to sleep.

But swapping your smartphone for reading a book before bedtime, according to Mayo Clinic, can “promote better sleep by easing the transition between wakefulness and drowsiness.”


Reading can enhance social skills

While some people view books as a way to escape the real world and the people in it, research has shown that when it comes to social skills, reading may have its uses.

For example, a 2013 study published in the journal, Science, found that individuals who read fiction may have better “theory of mind” — that is, the ability to understand that people’s beliefs, desires, and thoughts are different from their own.


Reading may boost intelligence, attention span

Studies have shown that reading can increase an individual’s vocabulary, which has been linked with greater intelligence.  It appears that the stronger a person’s early reading skill is, the more intelligent they are likely to become.