Keen readers have known it for years: reading a book can make you feel better.
Whether that’s calming down after a stressful day, or sending your mind racing by learning something new, reading has a powerful effect.
What you might not know is that reading has benefits that are scientifically proven to be good for your health.
Here are seven:
A 2009 study from the University of Sussex proved that reading could lower stress by 68%.
Anecdotally, this might come as no surprise – but the facts show that after just six minutes of reading, muscle tension starts to dissipate. Regardless of how tense the book might be, reading = relaxing.
Reading a book before bed can help you get to sleep, particularly if you find it difficult to stop your thoughts racing long enough to finally snooze.
This is partly because reading a book that you are enjoying makes you concentrate by engaging your mind on something external. It is also an alternative to staring at screens late at night, which is actively detrimental to sleep.
You may sleep just fine even if you look at a screen before bed, but you will wake up feeling more tired and are less likely to have slept well through the night.
The light given out by screens on laptops, phones or tablets is a kind of blue light, and its frequency can affect the levels of melatonin that your brain produces. That melatonin is what regulates your circadian rhythm – in other words, the cycle of being awake or asleep.
The effect of reading on the brain is so strong that it is thought to reduce mental decline in later life and even stave off diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Reading keeps the brain active in the same way that the body can be kept fit and healthy by physical movement.
And for those over 65, studies show that the wider vocabulary of those who read a lot corresponds directly with a slower rate of cognitive decline.
Talking of vocabulary, MRI scans of people who had been asked to read for just 30 minutes beforehand showed heightened activity in the left temporal cortex, which is associated with language.
That might be partly because reading can be a way of discovering completely new ideas. It may be a book set in another country, or told from the viewpoint of a character who differs entirely from yourself. Either way, books can be an entrance into a completely different world, set of references and vocabulary.
People often do crosswords or a Sudoku to stretch their mind – and to literally strengthen their brain. Reading has the same effect.
Reading regularly, even for only 10 minutes a day, keeps the mind more agile. Early studies suggest that brains strengthened by such mental exercise have faster memory recall than in those who don’t participate in the same kind of activity.
Reading another person’s point of view and exploring new worlds through books has been shown to heighten empathy and emotional intelligence.
Readers can feel a connection to something or someone that is far outside their typical scope.
For those living with Alzheimer’s, one symptom can be a perceived lack of empathy to those around them. However, it may be that those people find some solace in reading. Entering the world created in a book can act as a gentle way of introducing them to new characters and stories that seem familiar or relatable without the potential anxiety of a real-world encounter.
Bibliotherapy is a real word and a real practice where people who might be feeling lonely or show depressive symptoms are prescribed not medicine, but books.
And it’s a practice that goes back millennia. Above King Ramses II of Egypt’s books, the phrase ‘The house of healing for the soul’ was inscribed. Back in the modern world, therapists sometimes use bibliotherapy to help treat mental health and cognitive issues through a combination of identifying themes that are familiar to the individual and the sense of catharsis found in recognising them.
We are very proud of the libraries in all of our Baycroft homes, and we encourage our residents to use them as much as they would like.
Enjoying a good book – there are few more relaxing, therapeutic and beneficial things to do.