Spending 30 minutes a day with a good book may add years to your life, according to a new study. Out of 3,635 people surveyed about their health and reading habits, bookworms were 20 percent less likely to die over the next 12 years—even after researchers controlled for factors such as gender, education, and cognitive ability.
The study, published in the September issue of Social Science & Medicine, was conducted by researchers at Yale University who wanted to see how reading books and periodicals might affect longevity. They noted that while most sedentary behavior—like watching television—is known to increase the risk of death, previous studies have found that reading either reduces that risk or has no effect at all.
That previous research also combined different types of reading materials, and did not suggest why, exactly, reading might be beneficial. So the Yale researchers came up with a new hypothesis: Because books tend to present themes and characters in greater length and depth, they wrote in the paper’s introduction, “we speculated that books engage readers’ minds more than newspapers and magazines, leading to cognitive benefits that drive the effect of reading on longevity.”
They were right. When compared with people who read none at all, those who read books for up to three and a half hours per week were 17 percent less likely to die over the course of the study. For those who read even more than that, the reduced risk jumped to 23 percent. (Inspired? Check out our list of the best new books to read this month.)
People who preferred periodicals over books also had a slight advantage over non-readers: They were 11 percent less likely to die, but only if they read for more than seven hours a week.
The participants were all over age 50 at the start of the study, and varied widely in their economic, marital, employment, and education statuses. To help ensure that reading was responsible for the difference in life spans, the researchers controlled for many of these factors.
The study authors also wanted to make sure that book readers weren’t living longer just because they were smarter to begin with, so they gave participants cognition tests at the start of the study and three years later. The survival advantage persisted, even after adjusting for these results.
It was also clear that reading had a positive effect on brain power in those first three years—further suggesting that the survival advantage was due to the “immersive nature that helps maintain cognitive status,” the authors wrote.
On average, book readers lived 23 months longer than non-book readers. And the fact that the findings held true for all types of book readers—men, women, rich, poor—means that the results may have broad implications.
The study, which began in 2000, did not ask about e-books or audiobooks. It would be interesting to include these in future research, the authors wrote, especially since they are more likely to be read in a non-sedentary manner. Future studies might also compare different genres of books, or fiction versus non-fiction.
In their conclusion, the authors point out that adults over 65 spend nearly four and a half hours a day watching television. Redirecting their leisure time into reading books may help them live longer, they suggest. And for those who read mostly newspapers and magazines, switching to books—even just some of the time—might be worthwhile.
This is a “novel finding,” they wrote (pun intended), and good news for book lovers in more ways than one: “The robustness of our findings suggest that reading books may not only introduce some interesting ideas and characters, it may also give more years of reading.”