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A great novel can transport you to far-away places or long-lost times. Reading can make you think and laugh; it can inspire and teach. And if you do it for about a half hour every day, reading may also add years to your life. When researchers at Yale University School of Public Health analyzed data from more than 3,600 adults age 50 and older, they found that those who read books for 3½ hours a week—or 30 minutes a day—lived about two years longer than their non-reading peers. But you have to dig into an actual book: reading newspapers and magazines doesn’t have quite the same longevity benefits. Here are five more ways reading a book does your body good.
Becoming engrossed in a story has been shown to enhance connectivity in the brain, which improves brain function. Using fMRI scans, neuroscientists at Emory University found that when a person is reading fiction, it stimulates and strengthens the language-processing parts of the brain. It also increases connectivity in areas associated with physical sensations and movement. According to researchers, those brain changes help readers use their imagination and put themselves in someone else’s shoes—just like, for example, when you think about running, it can activate the same neurons as when you actually run.
No matter how old you are, reading books can help preserve memory, according to a study published in the journal Neurology. Just like muscles in your body, the brain needs its version of exercise to keep it strong and healthy. Consider curling up with a book that perfect workout. Researchers found people who frequently exercised their minds later in life—by reading, writing letters, or visiting the library—had a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline compared to those who didn’t engage in such activities. Even when researchers found physical signs of dementia or damage to participants’ brains, mental stimulation seemed to help protect memory and thinking skills. Other research suggests those who engage their brains with reading and chess, for example, could be 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who spend their down time on less stimulating activities.
Getting sucked into a work of fiction may make you more empathetic, or able to understand what others are thinking and feeling, according to research. One study showed that reading literary fiction, specifically, can improve your capacity for empathy, where reading nonfiction or popular fiction doesn’t have the same effect.
Reading can ease your frazzled nerves by as much as 68 percent, according to reports on a 2009 study. Researchers at Sussex University found reading was more effective at fighting stress than listening to music, sipping a cup of tea, or even taking a walk. And it only took six minutes for the study subjects to relax once they started flipping pages.
Experts agree that establishing a relaxing bedtime routine helps calm your mind and signal your body that it’s time for shut-eye. Reading is a great way to wind down—as long as you’re snuggling into an old-fashioned paperback or hardcover, not an e-reader or tablet. The blue light that’s emitted from electronic devices actually activates the brain and *suppresses* the release of melatonin—a hormone that induces sleep. Research shows reading from a screen can make it harder to fall and stay asleep, so stick to paper.