While you may have been taught the importance of reading at a young age, the fact is more Americans are reading fewer books overall, raising questions about the possible health impacts.
According to a survey conducted in 2021 by the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of American adults reportedly did not read any part of a book in either paper or electronic form over the previous 12 months. This trend also holds true among children: The Pew Research Center reports that the number of children and adolescents ages 9 to 13 who read “for fun” is the lowest it’s ever been.
Also, while reading of any form can be beneficial, research suggests that reading traditional paper books over digital forms may be superior due to readers’ abilities to more effectively recall events and the overall timeline in a given story. Researchers also note, however, that understanding may be similar across both formats. Additionally, according to Harvard Business Review, while nonfiction offers opportunities for language development and learning, literary fiction may offer even more benefits, including empathy, critical thinking skills, and more.
Due to an increasingly fast-paced lifestyle and seemingly endless responsibilities, reading may be at the bottom of your list of priorities. But that may be worth reconsidering.
Here are seven ways reading books may provide benefits to your health and how you can incorporate reading into your routine:
1. Reading Books Can Help You Manage Stress
While reading may help reduce stress when you’re managing a mental health condition, such benefits can also extend to everyday stress management.
“Reading can help to reduce stress levels, providing a much-needed respite from the challenges of daily life,” says Alice Williams, MD, a New Mexico–based physician. “When you’re lost in a good book, your body begins to relax, and your breathing slows down. This can lead to a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, which can promote overall feelings of well-being.”
Holly Schiff, PsyD, a Connecticut-based licensed clinical psychologist for Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, also points to these benefits of reading over other leisurely activities you might reach for when you’re stressed. “With a book — as opposed to a movie or TV show — you are inventing the visuals yourself, and this involvement makes it that much more powerful,” Dr. Schiff explains. “It can be used as a coping skill or mechanism to deal with any unpleasant emotions or thoughts you may be experiencing. You become immersed in the world that you are reading about, and it helps you forget your worries, and in some cases can be transformative and give you insight and ideas on how to interact differently with the world and others.”
Research seems to support such benefits. One previous study on various stress management techniques for students found that reading — even a mere 30 minutes at a time — was effective in decreasing acute stress. Researchers found similar effects with humor and yoga.
2. Reading May Improve Your Mental Well-Being
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, reading helps improve mental well-being by reducing stress and helping to provide a healthy escape. A study of reading in adolescents also found that book reading led to increased mindfulness and feelings of optimism, while also decreasing rates of anxiety and depression.
“Bibliotherapy helps with depression since it helps with emotional understanding and self-awareness,” says Schiff. She also notes the importance of reading to alleviate loneliness because you may identify with characters experiencing similar circumstances.
3. Books Increase Comprehension and Vocabulary in Young Readers
Whether you’re reading to a baby or toddler, or if an older child has started reading on their own, book-reading is a healthy habit because it can help increase comprehension and vocabulary. Not only does this help with gradual progression of reading skills more specifically, but young readers may also utilize such skills in their daily lives.
“The more words you are exposed to, the more likely you are to learn them and be able to use them in your own speech and writing,” says Dr. Williams. “This is especially beneficial for children, who are rapidly acquiring language skills. In addition, reading together gives parents and children a chance to bond and connect with one another.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, reading helps build babies’ language skills and introduces them to a higher variety of words than they might encounter through listening to everyday conversations. Also, the earlier you start reading books to young children, the better they will likely succeed in kindergarten and beyond.
Vocabulary development and reading comprehension have also been found to go hand in hand. One previous longitudinal study found that both reading experience and comprehension were strong predictors of vocabulary, with “good” comprehension associated with strong vocabulary skills, and vice versa.
4. Reading Helps Adolescents With Self-Identity
Identity development is a key component of adolescence. While research suggests that self-identity is influenced by a combination of life events, maturity, and close relationships, reading may also play a role.
“Reading not only enhances academic performance, social engagement, and personal development, but it also helps adolescents and teens develop insight into becoming and being an adult,” says Schiff. “Exploring self-identity is crucial during this time. By reading fictional stories, they develop insight into mature relationships, friendships, personal values, and cultural identity. These are all important when we look at the transition from being a child to becoming an adult.”
Research also notes the importance of adolescent self-identity development, with evidence pointing to neural changes that may help provide this age group with cognitive benefits that influence decision-making and other important functions.
5. Reading Increases Empathy and May Improve Relationships
When you read a book to a baby or toddler, you’re helping them with brain development that extends beyond language development — you are also contributing to their emotional learning. Such skills can also be built upon throughout your life as a reader.
Empathy, or the ability to understand and share how another person feels, is an important building block to social and interpersonal relationships. Previous research suggests that reading fiction books in particular may result in similar social-cognitive effects that may be gained in real-life social interactions.
“By reading about the lives and experiences of others, we can gain a greater insight into their thoughts and feelings,” says Williams. This can lead to a more tolerant and compassionate attitude towards others, as well as a better understanding of our own emotions.”
Schiff also notes the effects of reading fiction on empathy. “It helps expose you to life circumstances that can be very different from your own,” she says. “This can then influence how you relate to others in the real world. Reading provides us the opportunity to take other peoples’ perspectives in a safe and distanced way.”
Additionally, research points to the benefits of reading fiction on “theory of mind,” which describes the ability to acknowledge that people have points of view and desires that differ from your own. Not only is theory of mind considered an important social skill in building relationships, but it is also considered an important characteristic of functioning societies.
6. Reading Improves Cognitive Function—Even as You Age
While reading books can help children build cognitive skills as part of their healthy development, such benefits can also extend to older adults. Research suggests that regular cognitive-related activities throughout childhood and adulthood may slow down cognitive decline as you age. One such activity that may help is reading books.
“Reading is a cognitive activity that works your brain and prevents memory loss,” says Schiff. “Reading is a mentally stimulating activity that increases the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain. It can also help delay cognitive decline and impairment and is associated with better cognitive function.”
Additionally, Schiff notes that reading may help prevent beta-amyloid deposits from developing on the brain. These are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease, a type of age-related dementia. “Mental stimulation can also slow Alzheimer’s progression as keeping the brain active is thought to build reserves of healthy brain cells and connections between them,” she says. “By building this brain reserve, it can help compensate for the damage caused by Alzheimer’s, and because the brain is able to compensate and continue to function, the onset of dementia may be delayed.”
One study found that participating in intellectual activities such as reading may help delay — or even help prevent — dementia. Such benefits were also found in older adults, suggesting that it’s never too late to begin reaping the cognitive benefits of activities like reading.
7. Reading Books May Help You Live Longer
While regular exercise and a healthy diet are just some of the ways you can extend your lifespan, the cognitive effects of reading books may even help you live longer. According to a related study, book readers had a 23-month longer lifespan average compared with non-book readers.
Reading books certainly isn’t a replacement for other healthy behaviors. But when considering the collective benefits discussed on this list, such as the cognitive, social, and mental health benefits, it’s understandable to see how reading may help you live a longer and more fulfilling life.
How to Jump-Start a New Book-Reading Habit
In terms of reading books to babies and young children, the Cleveland Clinic recommends reading as often and as soon as possible for the most benefits. Yet they also note that even setting aside a few minutes per day can help.
To get back into the habit of reading, or to cultivate a brand-new reading lifestyle entirely, Schiff recommends the following strategies:
- Choose a topic you’re interested in, as this will help you maintain the habit.
- If you have lost interest in a particular book, don’t force yourself to keep reading it, as this will create a negative association with reading — choose another book instead.
- Start with short stories and work your way up to longer-length fiction novels.
- If you don’t have a long block of time to set aside for reading, you can read in chunks of time instead.
Schiff also recommends making reading a social activity — you can read with your friends or family, or even join a book club. “It gives you a sense of community and company when reading, and you will be able to have fruitful conversations and discuss how differently everyone can interpret the same literature,” she says.