Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant
If you’re looking for a free and natural way to get better sleep, improve your cardiovascular health, strengthen your cognitive function, and extend your life expectancy, you may just need to reach for the nearest reading material.
Reading every day has been proven to have multiple health benefits. (In fact, you’re experiencing these benefits even now while you’re reading this article!) Here are a few of the surprising ways reading can improve your health.
1) Reading helps you get better sleep.
Reading has been shown to reduce stress before bedtime, which helps you fall asleep faster. In one study, reading for just six minutes before bedtime lowered participants’ stress levels by 68%.
Reading distracts your mind from all the stress, worries, and anxiety of the day. It also puts your mind in an altered state of consciousness, which helps your mind and body relax. Reading also can help prepare you for sleep because it becomes part of your bedtime routine, which signals your brain and body that it’s time to wind down for the day.
To get the maximum benefit of reading at bedtime, it’s best not to read from a screen, since this exposes your retinas to bright light that can suppress the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
Also, it doesn’t matter whether you read a fiction or nonfiction book, or a newspaper or a magazine, as long as you find your reading material engaging.
2) Reading can improve your cardiovascular health.
When you start reading, your blood pressure drops, and your heart rate and respiratory rate slow down. These effects combine to reduce the strain placed on your heart and blood vessels.
While reading is not a substitute for other healthy habits like eating well, exercising, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, reading can be another practice to include in your daily routine to help you stay healthy.
3) Reading supports healthy brain function.
Nearly all brain growth occurs in the first five years of life. By the time a child turns three, approximately 85% of their brain’s structure has formed. Reading to a child for 20 minutes a day has been shown to have a positive, powerful impact on their brain during this crucial time of brain development.
Children whose caregivers read to them every day have a better cognitive function, language skills, and memory than children whose caregivers don’t read to them. In addition to its benefits, reading also provides an alternative to screen time, which can have a detrimental effect on young children’s brain development. And it gives children an opportunity to engage and bond with their caregivers.
Later in life, reading can lower the risk of age-related cognitive decline. Multiple studies have shown that patients who engage in daily cognitive activities -- including solving math problems, doing crossword puzzles, and reading -- have fewer age-related brain changes that can lead to multiple forms of dementia. Another study found that people who did not engage in these mentally stimulating activities tended to decline 48% faster than their counterparts.
4) Reading can improve mental health.
Reading has several mental health benefits as well. It offers a distraction from negative thoughts and feelings. It lowers levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. It helps lonely people feel connected to others as they engage with a story’s characters. And reading stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers, which causes the release of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters.
5) Reading can extend your life expectancy.
All these benefits combine for an overall, lifetime benefit: a longer life expectancy.
When the University of Michigan conducted a study examining the reading habits of 3600 participants over age 50, they found that people who spent 30 minutes or more reading every day lived an average of two years longer than people who read less (or didn’t read at all).
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