Want to live longer? Read a book

Panorama 2/19

Researchers at Yale University in ‎the USA found that reading often can extend your life. Co-authors Avni Bavishi, Martin Slade and Becca R. Levy, who work as researchers at the university’s School of Public Health, published their study on the correlation between book reading and longevity under the title “A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity” in the journals “Social Science” and “Medicine.”  

The researchers based their work on a representative study that collected data on the reading habits of people over the age of 50. During the course of their research, they evaluated data from 3,635 individuals over a period of 12 years. The researchers divided the subjects into three categories: those who didn’t read, those who read for three-and-a-half or less hours per week and those who read for more than three-and-a half hours per week.

They found that readers lived an average of 23 months longer than non-readers. Surprisingly, reading magazines and newspapers did not have as strong of an effect on the subjects who were studied. If you want to live longer, you need to pick up a book.

In an interview with “Panorama,” lead author Avni Bavishi discussed the results in greater detail.

“Panorama”: Can you please give us a summary of your findings?

Avni Bavishi: We found that reading books confers a survival advantage. The effect was proportional to the amount of time individuals spent reading. Those who read up to three-and-a-half hours per week had a 17% higher life expectancy than non-readers; those who read more than three-and-a-half hours enjoyed a 23% higher life expectancy.
We also found that only reading books provided this survival advantage.

Can you explain how you measured the results?

The Health and Retirement Study has been collecting data since the 1980s – and it has been collecting data about reading since 2001. When we began our study in 2012, we used this data to learn about individual reading habits, with an average follow-up time of nine and a half years. The US study also collected data on the seniors’ cognitive status using a questionnaire. We used this data to calculate a survival model and adjusted for other covariances (health, vision, wealth, marriage status, job status, depression, age, gender, race, comorbid diseases, and education level). We then did a mediation analysis to see if there was a correlation between reading books and cognitive performance that might explain the higher life expectancy. 

Reading improves social skills, such as empathy and emotional intelligence.
Avni Bavishi
Did you learn anything else about readers besides higher life expectancy?

We found that reading improved the cognitive ability of older people. We believe that is why they have a survival advantage. 

Do you get the same benefit from reading a cook book that you do from reading a novel? 

We believe that readers engage with books on a much deeper level than they do with newspapers or magazines. We believe this effect – which experts call the “deep reading” effect – is the reason why books are especially good at boosting cognitive skills. We did not collect any data about what genres participants read, but this would be an interesting study topic in the future.

Did your findings allow you to explain why reading books has such a positive effect on life expectancy?     

We found that the survival advantage is caused by cognitive improvements that occur when people read books. Previous research indicates that the cognitive skills required for reading have a positive impact on vocabulary, concentration and logical and critical thinking, as well as social skills, such as empathy and emotional intelligence. All of these measures have been linked to higher life expectancy in other studies. 

Did your study examine whether there is a difference between reading printed books and digital books?

Unfortunately, there was data available for our study about what medium participants preferred (e-books vs. print); however, this would be interesting to explore in the future. 

The subjects in your study were over 50 years old. Do you have a breakdown of ages? If so, was there a difference in results for different age groups?

While we did not study the results in different age groups, the ages of the subjects, considering normal life expectancy, were evenly distributed across the following age groups: 30% were between the ages of 50 and 59, 33% between the ages of 60 and 69, 25% between the ages of 70 and 79 and 12% were 80 or older.

Can you delineate the results by gender, health, or other criteria? 

We subdivided the results by gender and found that the survival advantage occurred in both men and women. We also found that the results held true in individuals regardless of health, wealth or education levels. 

Do you think that age is not a factor? In other words, if 20-year-olds read books for 3.5 hours per week, do you believe they would enjoy the same benefit?

It is hard to generalize this because we did not study younger adults. However, without any supporting data, I would be inclined to believe that the effect would also be visible in younger groups. I would like to see studies on this in the future.

Can you explain the threshold of 3.5 hours? If I read for six hours, will it increase my life expectancy proportionately?

There is, indeed, a dose-response relationship between reading and survival rates, as indicated by the fact that those who read more had a long life expectancy. However, as little as 30 minutes a day was still beneficial. We don’t know for sure if there is a cap on the benefit, but the data we saw indicated that reading more can lead to a greater survival benefit. 

An article in the “Washington Post” said that variables such as education level, income and health status were taken into account. How exactly did you account for these variables?

All of these covariances are included in the statistical model. Other variables included age, race, self-reported health, depression, employment and marital status. We were able to adjust for all of these, so the impact of all these variables were accounted for in the model.

Are there other studies that corroborate or contradict your results?

Previous research provided mixed results about whether there was a survival advantage to reading in general. However, those studies did not focus on book reading. 

There is a dose-response relationship between reading and survival rates.
Avni Bavishi

Print vs. Pixels

While the Yale study did not have data on the difference between e-books and print books, German psychologist Dr. Hans-Georg Häusel is convinced that reading printed books is superior to digital books. According to Häusel, e-books have the advantage of being easy to access, but for deep reading print is better.

Dr. Häusel, a pioneer in neuromarketing, cites a Norwegian study in which one group of tenth graders read two texts of 1,400 and 2,000 words in print and another group read them on a computer screen. The results showed that the group that had read the texts in print understood them considerably better (see “Panorama” 2/18).

Nicolas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” agrees with Dr. Häusel. He says that e-books permit too many distractions and reduce mental interactivity making it difficult to immerse yourself in what you’re reading and analyze it critically.
17 % 
higher life expectancy for those who read up to three and a half hours a week compared to non-readers.

23 %
higher life expectancy for those read more than three and a half hours a week compared to non-readers.

Time Credited

Lead author Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale, emphasizes the significance of the study: “People who report as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read, regardless of gender, health status, wealth, or education.
The survival advantage, she adds, remained after adjustment for baseline cognition – meaning that it was the benefits of reading, rather than the readers’ previous cognitive skills, that helped lengthen life expectancy.
“More questions need to be answered,” Becca R. Levy says. “But we know that reading books involves two cognitive processes that provide a survival advantage: slow and deep reading, and the promotion of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”
Professor Levy noted that these findings suggest that the time spent reading books is ultimately credited to you.

Becca R. Levy, Professor of Epidemiology at Yale, is the lead author of the study on the connection between reading habits and life expectancy.