I’ve spent my life immersed in a warm bath of fiction. I always have one novel going and another waiting. On the rare occasions when I have no new book on hand, I feel slightly panicky.
Scientists have discovered that people who read books live longer than those who don’t. (You can imagine how much that pleases me.)
In 2001, as part of a study of health and retirement, researchers from the University of Michigan asked more than 3,600 people—all of them over 50—about their reading habits. Specifically, the subjects were asked how many hours they’d spent in the past week reading books and how many they’d spent on newspapers or magazines.
About 15 years later, investigators from Yale borrowed data from this study and checked the National Death Index to find out which of the 3,600 had died and who was still alive. They learned that the book readers had lived, on average, almost two years longer than those who didn’t read books. (The study was reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine in 2016.)
What is so fascinating is this: the mere act of reading wasn’t what lengthened their lives. Those who consumed newspapers and magazines actually spent more time reading than the book lovers did. But when it came to survival, any amount of book consumption—even just a chapter a day—provided more of an advantage than consuming periodicals did.
Through the magic of statistics, the investigators ruled out a number of other possible explanations for their findings—for instance, the people who lived longer weren’t the best educated, the wealthiest or the healthiest; they were simply the bookworms. The Yale team called their results “robust.”
What is it about turning the pages of a book that can add years to an older individual’s life (and possibly to a younger person’s as well)? There are several possibilities. The researchers suggested that part of the credit might go to something called deep reading: a slow, thoughtful, absorbing process that triggers reflections; as you read, your own memories and opinions well up. Books are more likely than newspapers and magazines to offer that kind of experience. Deep reading has been compared to meditation, which can be a gateway to deep relaxation and relief from stress.
Another possibility: book reading is good exercise for the brain. Eighty-seven percent of book lovers choose fiction, and a good, strong narrative requires you to follow a plot over several hundred pages, tracking various characters and their relationships. All the while, you’re visualizing the action, taking in the sensory details on the page and vicariously experiencing the characters’ moral dilemmas and emotions.
This brings me to the empathy theory, which is somewhat controversial but supported by brain scans. When you watch an upset woman in a supermarket searching for her lost child, for instance, the same parts of your brain that would be active if you yourself were that woman spark into action. Some neuroscientists believe this mental mirroring of actions and emotions is the basis for empathy and for the ability to guess what others are thinking and may be about to do.
More to the point, if you simply read about the mother’s search and her fears, your brain also responds much as it would if you were the one fearfully searching. No wonder people who read a lot of fiction are better able to understand others, according to research, and to see the world from their point of view. These are survival skills.
The empathy theory makes sense to me. I can get inside the heads of the characters in a novel better than I can ever get inside the heads of my family and friends. Authors tell me what their characters are thinking and I learn from that.
But in one way, it makes no sense that book readers live longer. All sorts of research shows that sitting is bad for you: it’s the new smoking, some say. And most people sit while reading.
It seems to me that the Yale study raises more questions than it answers. The study team suggests further research to answer some of those questions, such as whether e-books and audiobooks also boost longevity and whether fiction readers tend to live longer than those who prefer nonfiction books. Researchers could also compare the impacts of different genres.
In the process, someone might figure out why sitting seems to shorten lives—unless you do it while absorbed in a book. Meanwhile, if books do indeed provide me with a longer life, I’m going to use it to do a lot more reading.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.