There are few activities that recall halcyon summer days more than stretching out under a shady tree or on a sandy beach, and “leafing” through a good book.
But sadly, fewer and fewer people are doing that these days. In fact, according to the World Culture Index, when it comes to cracking open a book, Americans barely make it into the top 25 countries.1
The average resident of India devotes nearly 11 hours a week to reading books. The Thais are the second most prolific readers, followed by the Chinese. But the U.S. is tied with Germany for the 22nd spot—spending less than six hours a week reading, per person.
Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center reported that in 2019, a shocking 27 percent of Americans said they hadn’t read a single book in the last year. Which turned out to be an 8 percent increase in non-readers in just eight years!2
This is disappointing news not only for our collective knowledge and imagination, but also for our longevity. Let me explain…
The hidden health benefits of books
A recent study shows that book readers live almost two years longer than non-readers. More specifically, researchers found that people who read a book for as little as 30 minutes a day had a 23 percent lower risk of dying over a 12-year period compared to people who didn’t read at all.
In other words…reading books may very well improve your lifespan just as much as eating a healthy diet or getting regular, moderate exercise!
Of course, this finding may seem counterintuitive. After all, book reading is a sedentary activity. And as I’ve written in past issues, research shows that sitting for long periods of time is definitely not a good way to improve longevity.
But when it comes to reading, you can take a book outside, on the porch or deck, or even by a babbling brook. These are all arguably healthier environments and activities than being a couch potato glued to a TV or computer screen—even if it’s not keeping you physically active.
Of course, it’s worth noting that while your body may remain stationary, reading keeps your brain active. And plenty of research shows that staying mentally active helps to prevent and even control Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Plus, new research shows that reading novels appears to boost both brain connectivity, empathy, and language skills—all of which have been linked to longer, healthier lives.
A chapter a day keeps the grim reaper away
Yale researchers looked at data from 3,635 men and women, ages 50 years and older.3 They divided the participants into three groups:
1.) Those who didn’t read books
2.) Those who read up to 3.5 hours per week
3.) Those who read more than 3.5 hours a week.
The researchers followed each study participant for 12 years, tracking their survival rates. At the end of the study, they discovered that the group that read up to 3.5 hours a week lived 17 percent longer than the non-readers. And the group that read more than 3.5 hours a week lived an impressive 23 percent longer.
Overall, the readers lived an average of 23 months longer than the non-readers.
This study was not influenced by the well-known effect of higher education levels, which are typically associated with lower death rates. People with more education might indeed be expected to read more. But the researchers found that education status didn’t have any effect on the link between reading and longevity. Nor did the subjects’ sex, age, wealth, or—surprisingly—health status.
The researchers concluded that books appear to offer a “significant survival advantage”—perhaps because of reading’s cognitive benefits. Which leads me to another interesting new study…
Why losing yourself in a book can help you live longer
In an effort to discover why fiction can have such a big impact on some people, researchers studied the brains of 19 self-described aficionados of the “Game of Thrones” books and TV series.4
The researchers asked the participants to think about themselves, nine of their friends, and nine Game of Thrones characters. Using a questionnaire and brain scans, the researchers discovered that people use the same part of the brain to think about a character in a book as they use to think about themselves. (Literary types view this phenomenon as getting immersed in a book and identifying with the character.)
One region of the brain that the researchers observed is part of the prefrontal cortex, which shows increased acuity when people think about themselves, and to a lesser extent, when they think about close friends. (Interestingly, during the early 20th century, in cases of mental illness, prefrontal lobotomies were performed to cut off these connections from the rest of the brain.)
The prefrontal cortex was also more active in the people who, according to the questionnaire, were more likely to become immersed in a story. Their brain activity was greatest when thinking about a character they liked and identified with the most.
The researchers also noted that these people appeared to respond to fictional characters as they would to a real-life friend. And like friends, these characters can alleviate loneliness—which has been linked in other studies to shortened lifespans.
In addition, a study author also said, “For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds through others’ eyes, and return from those experiences changed.”5
This could also be called escapism. But according to these brain scans, what we’re really escaping from is thinking about ourselves. And that actually appears to be a good thing. I’ve written before about studies showing that thinking about and doing things for others is associated with better health and longevity—as is taking time to reflect, and expressing gratitude. (In fact, on page 8, I discuss another new study on personality and longevity that suggests that people who are more conscientious tend to live longer.)
Another way reading can lengthen your lifespan
Along with boosting your empathy for others, reading can also increase your language skills, according to another new study. And plenty of prior research shows that enhanced verbal and language abilities are important for brain health—and longer lives.
Researchers gave 200 undergraduate college students a questionnaire that assessed their reading behaviors—including their attitudes, interests, motivations, and obstacles.6 The researchers noted that this is the age when people tend to develop their own reading habits, rather than simply reading what they’ve been directed to by teachers or parents.
The participants were then administered language tests. After evaluating the tests and questionnaire, the researchers concluded that the students who enjoyed reading the most were more likely to have better language skills and verbal abilities. Interestingly, these benefits were more strongly associated with reading fiction rather than nonfiction.
In addition to better language skills, research shows that long-term readers have more understanding of others, more empathy, and less prejudice. They attain higher socioeconomic status, and of course enjoy longer, healthier lives.
Ultimately, the researchers recommended that parents and teachers nurture a lifelong love of reading by simply letting young people read what they want, and emphasizing the fun aspects of reading. This is especially important in light of the data I mentioned earlier, showing the rapid decline of reading in the U.S.—and its potential detrimental effects.
The relaxing aspects of reading
I once shared these study findings with Janice Stern, my former senior editor (now retired) at Springer Publishers, which publishes some of my medical textbooks and employs editors who are real book lovers.
She was quick to respond: “I’m not surprised by the results of the studies. When one is reading a book (well, most books), one is not worrying about other things, or trying to achieve or prove something.”
And there it is: Book reading is a beneficial form of relaxation and stress reduction—and it stimulates the brain at the same time. You can’t find a better combination for a long and healthy (and entertaining) life.
So why not pick up a book this summer and improve your mind, body, and soul. You can get started with my Summer Reading List in the sidebar below. Then, I hope you’ll do as I do and make your summer reading a lasting, year-long habit.
(Of course, if you’re looking for practical, non-fiction books that can help you live longer, and reduce your risk of chronic diseases, there are several under the “books” tab of my website, www.DrMicozzi.com.)
SIDEBAR: My summer reading list
As a lifelong reader, I typically find myself turning to the classics, like an old friend, when I reach for a book. No matter how many times I read them, I lose myself in the following tales—and always find something new to appreciate.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Although not popular when it was first published in 1851, Moby Dick came into fame in the 20th century as a “great American novel.” It’s about a whaling voyage…and so much more. Or as a dear, departed family member (who was also a lifetime reader) once described it: “He keeps talking about water, water, water…”
(It’s said that Melville got some of his inspiration for Moby Dick after attending a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Massachusetts while waiting to ship out on a whaling voyage. Emerson spoke on his signature topic of self-reliance and used the example of a true story of the whale ship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a white whale in the South Pacific in 1820.)
Melville dedicated Moby Dick to his great friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius.” Which leads me to another favorite book of mine…
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This American gothic writer is best known for this book, also published in 1851, and for the Scarlet Letter (the original example of American “cancel culture”).
The House of the Seven Gables is a somber study in hereditary sin, based on a legendary curse by a woman who was condemned to death during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne was a direct descendant of Judge John Hathorne, who presided at the trials. (Nathaniel changed his name’s spelling to distance himself from the judge.)
Hawthorne also has a personal connection to the seven-gabled house, which was owned by his cousin. Built in 1668 in Salem, Massachusetts, it’s still standing today—and yes, you can visit.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Not exactly a light read, the title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…”
This quintessential Southern novel deals with the dissolution of an aristocratic family. Each character tells a different version of the same story, creating a masterful tapestry of writing.
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
A rural Yorkshire heroine called Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Royal Army sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous landowner. Who wins? (Hint: nobody.)
The Quiet American, The Comedians, and Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
The Quiet American is set in Vietnam during the French Indochina War of the 1950s. It’s amazingly prescient regarding the later U.S. interference there—a direct result of the French actions after World War II.
The Comedians is a similar tale of clandestine American intervention in Haiti under a pseudo-Papa Doc Duvalier.
And Ministry of Fear is a Hitchcock-type spy thriller, made into the classic 1944 film by Fritz Lang.
Word of Honor and Up Country by Nelson DeMille
Both of these novels offer a more contemporary take on the Vietnam War—but with all of the masterful intrigue, double-crosses, and storytelling of the Greene books.
The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller by Henry James
These short novels are often paired together. The first is narrated by a governess who, caring for two children at a remote estate, becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted. But through the deft use of ambiguity, the reader is left wondering whether she imagined the whole thing? Meanwhile, Daisy Miller is a clever study in American versus European mores, told through the story of a complicated, romantic courtship.
Henry James was the brother of William James, the founder of American social psychology, and you can see that influence in his works. In fact, to some extent, The Turn of the Screw was the basis for the spooky 1980 film The Changeling with George C. Scott, as well as more recent films, produced both in the U.S. and in the U.K.
3 “A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity.” Soc Sci Med. 2016 Sep;164:44-48.
4 “Becoming the King in the North: identification with fictional characters is associated with greater self–other neural overlap.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2021.
6 “What’s your pleasure? exploring the predictors of leisure reading for fiction and nonfiction.” Read Writ (2021).