Although you may have learned the importance of reading at a young age, the truth is that more Americans are reading fewer books overall, which raises questions about the potential health effects.
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2021, 23 percent of American adults reportedly have not read any part of a book either in paper or electronic form in the past 12 months. This trend also applies to children: The Pew Research Center reports that the number of children and teens ages 9 to 13 who read “for pleasure” is the lowest ever.
Also, while reading in any form can be beneficial, research suggests that reading traditional paperback books on digital forms may be better due to readers’ abilities to remember events more effectively and the overall timeline in a given story. The researchers also note, however, that the comprehension may be similar in both formulations. Additionally, according to Harvard Business Review, while fiction provides opportunities for language development and learning, literary fiction may offer more benefits, including empathy, critical thinking skills, and more.
With the fast-paced lifestyle and seemingly endless responsibilities, reading might be at the bottom of your priority list. But this may be worth reconsidering.
Here are seven ways reading books can provide benefits to your health and how you can incorporate reading into your routine:
1. Reading books can help you manage stress
While reading may help reduce stress when managing a mental health condition, these benefits can also extend to everyday stress management.
“Reading can help reduce stress levels, and provide a much-needed respite from the challenges of everyday life,” says Alice Williams, M.D., resident in New Mexico. “When you get lost in a good book, your body begins to relax and your breathing slows down. This can lead to a drop in heart rate and blood pressure, which can enhance an overall feeling of health.”
Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Connecticut Jewish Family Services in Greenwich, points out these benefits of reading over other recreational activities you might reach for when you’re stressed. “With a book — as opposed to a movie or TV show — you invent the visuals yourself, and that sharing makes them even more powerful,” Dr. Schiff explains. “It can be used as a skill or mechanism for dealing with any unpleasant feelings or thoughts you may be experiencing. You become immersed in the world you are reading about, and this helps you forget what worries you, and in some cases can be transformative and give you insight and ideas on how to interact differently with the world. and others.”
Research appears to support these benefits. One previous study of different stress management techniques for students found that reading — up to just 30 minutes at a time — was effective at reducing acute stress. Researchers found similar effects with humor and yoga.
2. Reading can improve your mental health
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, reading helps improve mental health by reducing stress and helping provide a healthy sanctuary. A study on reading in teens also found that book reading led to increased mental alertness and feelings of optimism, while also decreasing rates of anxiety and depression.
“Bible therapy helps with depression because it helps with emotional understanding and self-awareness,” Schiff says. She also points out the importance of reading to relieve loneliness because you may identify with characters in similar circumstances.
3. Books increase the understanding and vocabulary of young readers
Whether you’re reading to an infant or toddler, or if an older child has started reading on their own, reading books is a healthy habit because it can help increase comprehension and vocabulary. Not only does this help in the gradual progression of reading skills more specifically, but younger readers may also use these skills in their daily lives.
“The more words you are exposed to, the more likely you are to learn them and be able to use them in your speech and writing,” says Dr. Williams. “This is especially useful for children, who quickly acquire language skills. In addition, reading together gives parents and children an opportunity to connect and communicate with each other.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, reading helps build children’s language skills and introduces them to a greater variety of words than they might encounter by listening to everyday conversations. Also, the earlier you start reading books to young children, the more likely they are to do better in kindergarten and beyond.
He also found that vocabulary development and reading comprehension go hand in hand. A previous longitudinal study found that both reading experience and comprehension were strong predictors of vocabulary, with “good” comprehension associated with strong vocabulary skills, and vice versa.
4. Reading helps teens gain self-identity
Identity development is an essential component of adolescence. While research indicates that self-identity is influenced by a range of life events, maturity, and close relationships, reading may also play a role.
“Reading not only enhances academic performance, social engagement, and personal development, but it also helps preteens and teens develop insight into becoming adults,” Schiff says. “Exploring self-identity is crucial during this time. By reading fiction, they develop insight into mature relationships, friendships, personal values, and cultural identity. All of these are important as we look at the transition from being a child to becoming an adult.”
Research also points to the importance of developing adolescents’ self-identity, with evidence pointing to neurological changes that may help provide this age group with cognitive benefits that affect decision-making and other important functions.
5. Reading increases empathy and may improve relationships
When you read a book to an infant or young child, you are helping them with their brain development that goes beyond language development – you are also contributing to their emotional learning. These skills can also be built on throughout your life as a reader.
Empathy, or the ability to understand and share what another person feels, is an important building block for social and personal relationships. Previous research suggests that reading fiction books in particular may lead to similar social cognitive effects that can be gained in real-life social interactions.
“By reading about the lives and experiences of others, we can gain insight into their thoughts and feelings,” Williams says. This can lead to a more tolerant and compassionate attitude towards others, as well as a better understanding of our feelings.”
Schiff also notes the effects of reading novels on empathy. “It helps expose you to life circumstances that can be very different from your own,” she says. “This can then affect how you relate to others in the real world. Reading provides us with the opportunity to take other people’s perspectives in a safe and distant way.”
Additionally, the research notes the benefits of reading novels in “theory of mind,” which describes the ability to recognize that people have different views and desires than yours. Not only is theory of mind an important social skill in building relationships, but it is also an important feature of working societies.
6. Reading improves cognitive function – even as you age
While reading books can help children build cognitive skills as part of their healthy development, these benefits can also extend to older adults. Research suggests that regular cognitive activities throughout childhood and adulthood may slow cognitive decline as you age. One such activity that may help is reading books.
“Reading is a cognitive activity that powers your brain and prevents memory loss,” Schiff says. Reading is a mentally stimulating activity that increases the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain. It can also help delay cognitive decline and impairment and is linked to better cognitive function.”
Additionally, Schiff notes that reading may help prevent beta-amyloid deposits from forming in the brain. These are characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, a type of age-related dementia. “Mental stimulation can also slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, as maintaining brain activity is thought to build reserves of healthy brain cells and the connections between them,” she says. “By building this brain reserve, it can help offset the damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease, and because the brain is able to compensate and continue to function, the onset of dementia may be delayed.”
One study found that participating in intellectual activities such as reading may help delay – or even help prevent – dementia. Such benefits have also been found in older adults, suggesting that it is never too late to start reaping the cognitive benefits of activities such as reading.
7. Reading books can help you live longer
While regular exercise and a healthy diet are just some of the ways you can extend your life, the cognitive effects of reading books may help you live longer. According to a related study, book readers had a longer average lifespan of 23 months compared to non-readers.
Certainly, reading books is not a substitute for other healthy behaviours. But when considering the collective benefits discussed in this list, such as the cognitive, social, and mental health benefits, it’s understandable to see how reading can help you live a longer, more fulfilling life.
How to start the habit of reading a new book
In terms of reading books to infants and young children, the Cleveland Clinic recommends reading as often and as quickly as possible to get the most out of it. However, they also note that even dedicating a few minutes per day can help.
To get back into the habit of reading, or to develop an entirely new reading lifestyle, Schiff recommends the following strategies:
- Choose a topic you are interested in, as this will help you maintain this habit.
- If you lose interest in a particular book, don’t force yourself to keep reading it, as this will create a negative association with reading – choose another book instead.
- Start with short stories and work your way up to long fiction novels.
- If you don’t have a long chunk of time to dedicate to reading, you can read in chunks of time instead.
Schiff also recommends making reading a social activity — you can read with your friends or family, or even join a book club. “It gives you a sense of community and companionship when reading, and you’ll be able to have productive conversations and discuss how everyone can interpret the same literature differently,” she says.
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