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Benefits of Reading

When it comes to your brain, researchers have found there's no better superfood than a book.

Here’s a simple question - answer it honestly, because your response could boost the amount of pleasure in your daily life, delay dementia, and even help you live longer: How many hours did you spend reading books last week?

This question has arrived in thousands of U.S. homes every other year since 1992 as part of the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. A minor item on a massive survey of more than 20,000 retirees, it had long gone ignored in the analysis of elder brain health. But in 2016, when researchers at the Yale School of Public Health dug into 12 years of HRS data about the reading habits and health of more than 3,600 men and women over the age of 50, a hopeful pattern emerged: people who read books - fiction or nonfiction, ­poetry or prose - for as little as 30 minutes a day over several years were living an average of two years longer than people who didn’t read anything at all.

If you’re reading this, it’s safe to ­assume you don’t need to be sold on the merits of the written word. You may already be familiar with recent findings that suggest children as young as six months who read books with their parents several times a week show stronger literacy skills four years later, score higher on intelligence tests, and land better jobs than non-readers. But recent research argues that reading may be just as important in adulthood. 

When practiced over a lifetime, reading and language-acquisition skills can support healthy brain functioning in big ways. Simply put: word power increases brain power.

To understand why and what each of us can do to get the most out of our words, start by asking the same question the Yale team did: What is it about reading books in particular that boosts our brain power whereas reading newspapers and magazines doesn’t? For one, the researchers posit, chapter books encourage “deep reading.” Unlike, say, skimming a page of headlines, reading a book (of any genre) forces your brain to think critically and make connections from one chapter to another, and to the outside world.

When you make connections, so does your brain, literally forging new pathways between regions in all four lobes and both hemispheres. Over time, these neural networks can promote quicker thinking and may provide a greater defense against the worst effects of cognitive decay.


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