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The health benefits of reading

Reading improves brain function, is a great antidote against stress and may even delay the onset of alzheimer's. The healthy pleasures of a great read.   2016-03-20

Reading is one of those things that you either love or hate. For book lovers, life without a book is simply inconceivable. A book is more than a best friend, it is always there for you; to give your brain a rest from the grinding tediousness of daily life, to provide you with a wonderful escape route to an imaginary world.

Books are a perfect form of relaxation, they engage your mind, guiding your imagination to a wonderful world of fantasy, introducing you to realms far and beyond your own sphere. Why do we love to read? There is no one reason, but for book lovers, few pleasures in life are comparable to the sheer joy of curling down on the sofa, lost to the world in a wonderful book.

Improves brain function

If you love reading you don't need any scientist telling you to do so because it's good for you. You know that it is good for you and that is what matters. It turns out however that reading is good for us and not only because it enhances our personal development. A study by neuroscientists at Emory University and published in the journal Brain Connectivity on 9 December 2013 found that becoming absorbed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function. Fiction in particular was found to enhance the reader's ability to exercise their imagination.

Delays effects of Alzheimer's

Reading and other intellectual activities do not only add meaning to our life in the present, they also slow mental decline in old age, possibly even delaying the onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer's. In another study, researchers evaluated the mental activities of 1,157 people age 65 or older who did not have dementia at the start of the nearly 12-year study. In the words of Robert S. Wilson, PhD, neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, Rush University Medical Center intellectual pursuits such as reading "help delay the initial appearance of cognitive impairment in old age and allows a person to have a longer period of cognitive vitality and cognitive independence".

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Antidote against stress

Stress must surely be one of the most common malaises of life in our fast paced world. We all need a certain amount of pressure and ‘stress’ to live to the optimum. It’s what drives us and gives us the vitality and impetus to get things done. Without it, we would have little motivation to achieve and succeed. Yet the negative impact of this pressure over time can have serious repercussions on our health causing illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease and emotional and mental illness.

There are many ways of combatting stress and reading is one of them. In a 2009 study at the University of Sussex the stress levels and heart rate of volunteers were increased through a variety of tests and exercises. They were then tested with several known methods of relaxation including listening to music, playing a video game, having a cup of tea or coffee or by walking. Listening to music reduced stress levels by 61 per cent, a cup of tea or coffee by 54 per cent, taking a walk by 42 per cent and playing a video game by 21 per cent. They all left the volunteers with heart rates above their starting point. Reading beat them all. Just reading for six minutes reduced stress levels by 68 per cent.

Experience taking

‘Losing yourself’ in a book can lead to a phenomenon named by Ohio State University researchers ‘experience taking’. Experience taking happens when we internalize the thoughts, feelings and experiences of fictional characters. On occasions, this can lead to changes in the real life of the reader, even if only temporary. Experience taking can help us understand people with experiences that are different to our own, helping create a better world.

Paper book or e-book?

UK figures show that one in four consumer titles bought in 2013 was an ebook. It would appear that ebook v paper would be a choice of personal convenience, including considerations of storage space and weight, especially during travel, but researchers have expressed concern at how staring at a computer screen for too long might affect our brain. On a more personal level, avid readers have expressed a connection to the smell and feel of paper which is absent from the electronic equivalent. On the other hand, reading a book in public might be held to make a statement about who you are. By reading from an electronic device the only statement you are making is that you are ‘with it’ and in tune with the times.


Until the advent of the internet, books were our window to knowledge. In our generation to a great extent, they have lost this hallowed position but reading remains the most efficient way of relaxing. If you are tired or you want to switch off, turn of your telephone and sit down with your favourite volume. It’s one of the pleasures of life.