Print books remain surprisingly popular, even though some had predicted that the book would be dead by now. In fact, 65% of adult Americans say that they’ve read at least one print book in the last year, while 28% have read at least one ebook in the same time span. The total percentage of Americans who read at least one book a year — in any format — is 73%, down from 79% in 2011. This means that over a quarter of adults may be missing out on the extensive health benefits of reading, while those who do read may not be reading enough.
Here are three of the top science-backed benefits of reading books:
1. Reading Books Helps With Sleep
Many older adults struggle with insomnia, and reading can help induce sleep when other techniques fail. “I work with adults and always recommend reading as a bridge into sleep — it’s the quickest way to shut off one’s mind and allow drowsiness to take over,” says Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, sleep psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“Lots of people try lying in bed until sleep comes, but that’s almost always a recipe for disaster. Reading is the ticket!” The type of book matters when it comes to getting to sleep. Schneeberg recommends reading material that’s a bit lighter and less enthralling than material you would read during the day. “I advise my patients to choose something to read [at bedtime] that is a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is something by their absolute favorite author and 1 is too boring to hold their interest,” she says.
Another important factor to consider when reading before bed is that if you’re reading on your phone or ereader, “be sure you’ve blocked the blue light spectrum,” Schneeberg adds. According to Harvard Medical School’s “Harvard Health Letter”, the blue light emitted from smartphones and other screens suppresses melatonin and shifts natural circadian sleep rhythms. Most smartphones come with settings to reduce blue light as soon as the sun sets. For phones without these settings, apps like Twilight can be downloaded to reduce blue light at night.
To give one possible explanation for the success of Schneeberg’s suggestions, a study from the University of Sussex indicates that reading may reduce stress by 68%. Reading was shown to be more relaxing than listening to slow music or enjoying a hot cup of tea. Participants in the study only needed to read for six minutes to show signs of significant stress reduction.
An overly activated sympathetic nervous system — responsible for feelings of stress — is simply not conducive to sleep. Any activity that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, will help when it comes to falling asleep. Reading does just that.
2. Reading Books Prevents Cognitive Decline
Research led by Robert S. Wilson, professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences at Rush Medical College, shows that more frequent cognitive activity — including reading books, visiting libraries, and writing letters — across the lifespan is associated with slower late-life cognitive decline. The study also found that activities like reading books appear to counterbalance the cognitive loss associated with neuropathologic conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Reading Fiction Boosts Empathy
Researchers at The New School for Social Research in New York City observed that reading literary fiction enhances Theory of the Mind, which is the ability to infer the feelings, motives, opinions, and emotions of another based on their expression.
Literary fiction is especially good at empathy-building, since more complex characters inspire deeper identification with the protagonists. The ability to be empathetic — which is to intimately understand what it would feel like to be in another’s shoes — is a key factor in social connection and a building block for developing and maintaining lasting and meaningful relationships.