Bookworms, Rejoice: You May Live Longer

In a new study, readers showed “a survival advantage” over those who don’t ever crack open a book

Man Reading Book
As if you needed another reason to stop what you're doing and go back to that novel. Marketa/Flickr Creative Commons

Let’s face it: People who love to read have long felt superior to those who would rather watch TV than crack a good book. Now, reports The Guardian’s Alison Flood, there’s a new reason to justify those late nights binge reads and long library trips: Reading could help you live longer.

A new study in the journal Social Science and Medicine suggests that elderly people who read books have what authors call “a survival advantage” over those who don’t. Researchers used information from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study, a large public resource on adults 50 years and older in the United States, to tease out correlations between reading and longevity.

The study includes a survey on activities that categorized aging adults' reading habits. The researchers gave participants a reading score that characterized the amount of time they spent reading books or periodicals per week. They also assessed participants’ cognitive engagement using scores that take the ability to perform cognitive tasks, like counting backward from 20, into consideration. Then, they matched up each participant to information in the National Death Index, a central database of the names of people who died based on state reporting.

After poring over data from 3,635 participants and adjusting for factors like age, sex, race and education, researchers found that 27 percent of respondents who replied that they had read a book within the last week during the survey had died during 12 years of the study, compared to 33 percent of people who did not read books. People who read books lived an average of 23 months longer than those who did not. The amount of time people spent reading seemed to matter too: People who read up to 3.5 hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die, and people who read more than that were 23 percent less likely.

Periodical and newspaper readers lived longer too, but not as long as those readers who preferred books. “We uncovered that this effect is likely because books engage the reader’s mind more—providing more cognitive benefit, and therefore increasing the lifespan,” Avni Bavishi, who co-authored the study, tells Flood.

Though the researchers conclude that reading books could help people survive longer by engaging their minds more deeply, the study only shows associations between books and longevity, not definitive proof that readers are less likely to die. More research on things like book genre, e-readers versus paper books, and whether book readers are simply less sedentary than those who don’t read at all are needed. However, the research echoes other studies that tout the health benefits of other cultural pursuits, like visiting movie theaters or art exhibitions. And a study published earlier this year showed an association with social groups like book clubs and longer life.

Perhaps the news will encourage even more people to head to their local library or book store and get into books again. But for readers who already can’t wait to get cozy with a new book—or share their recommendations with other bookworms—there are plenty of other reasons to read. Whether it extends the life or not, reading extends the world of information and imagination, turning the act of reading itself into its own reward.

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