The Benefits of Reading Books 📚
Hey friends! So, I've noticed lately that a ton of people seem to be setting ambitious reading goals for their New Year's Resolutions. With that in mind, I have a question for y'all:
Do you still read books?
I have to confess here that I used to be a really voracious reader, especially when I was a kid. I would literally carry books with me everywhere I went.
Now, I still read a ton, due to the nature of my work and my obsessive hunger for information. In fact, I am certain that I spend more total hours reading than I did when I was a child. However, my consumption of books, particularly fiction, has kind of fallen off of a cliff.
This might not sound like a big deal. But not all text is created equal. Reading literature seems to promote different cognitive processes because this form of reading tends to be more immersive. And interestingly, I stumbled upon some research that suggests that the unique cognitive impact of reading books may have protective effects on the brain, especially as you get older.
This Year’s Research Highlights
It is considered normal for aspects of cognition to deteriorate with age; however the speed and extent of this decline shows substantial variability between individuals, and this can be explained in large part by engagement of cognitive skills. A large body of evidence shows that education protects against the manifestation of Alzheimer's symptoms and age-related decline of hippocampal volume, representing a phenomenon known as "cognitive reserve." But you may not have to go to school to benefit from cognitive reserve. Interestingly, literacy has been found to be a stronger predictor of late-life cognitive ability than one's level of education, suggesting that reading may be a key mediator of this protective effect. It has been shown that formal education is not associated with most cognitive measures after adjusting for literacy, and higher literacy scores are linked to greater performance in all domains of cognition in older adults, even outside of language processing. To see if a reading intervention could improve cognitive processes in vulnerable individuals, researchers at the University of Illinois recruited 76 older adults and randomly assigned them to two different groups. Half were assigned to use a variety of verbal puzzle apps on an iPad (active control group), and the other half were assigned to spend that time consuming an array of reading materials (novels, history, biography) that were uploaded to the iBooks app. All participants were asked to spend 90 minutes per day, 5 days per week, across 8 weeks on their assigned activity. At the end of the study, the experimental (reading) group showed significant improvements in working memory and episodic memory, compared to the control (puzzle) group. This is particularly encouraging because among all cognitive functions, working memory is one of the most susceptible to age-related decline.
Prior research has explored the impact of reading on mortality in older adults, but findings have been mixed, with some showing it to be beneficial, and others failing to find a protective effect. However, these studies typically do not differentiate between reading materials. Does what you read make a difference? To gain insight into the impact of specific forms of reading, as well as possible mechanisms, researchers affiliated with Yale University analyzed data from 3635 participants in a nationally representative study who had provided information about their reading habits and were subsequently followed for 12 years. The researchers found that participants who read more books had a substantial survival advantage over non-book readers. Compared to non-book readers, those who read books had a 20% reduction in all-cause mortality risk over the 12 years of follow-up, and this association was unaffected by an array of relevant variables like age, gender, wealth, health, and education. In fact, the relationship remained even after adjusting for the baseline cognitive measurements of the subjects (in other words, it wasn't because people who read books were already smarter). So, is there a difference between reading books compared to other reading materials? Sure enough, the researchers determined that book reading specifically was significantly more beneficial for survival than reading newspapers or magazines, even though people who consumed books spent less time per day reading compared to those who stuck to periodicals. The researchers hypothesized that books were advantageous in this respect because books tend to demand deeper cognitive engagement than other materials. And indeed, when the researchers analyzed the data, they found that the mortality benefit of books, versus periodicals, was mediated by their effects on cognition.
Random Trivia & Weird News
📚 The record for the longest overdue library book is 221 years — held by, of all people, George Washington.
Five months after assuming office, President Washington apparently checked out The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel from the New York Society Library. Thereafter, the book remained at his Virginia home, until staff at Mount Vernon finally returned the book in 2010.
The library mercifully did not choose to pursue an overdue fine, which would have amounted to a $300,000 late fee after adjusting for inflation.
Podcasts We Loved This Week
- Kay Tye and Hao Li: A good memory or a bad one? One brain molecule decides. Via Quanta Magazine.
- Glen Jeffery: Reindeer's fascinating color-changing eyes. Via The Conversation Weekly.
Products We Are Enjoying
Taurine is an amino acid-like molecule that occurs naturally throughout the body. Studies have shown that taurine is linked to remarkable reductions in blood pressure, as well as protection against brain deterioration later in life.
However, these kinds of improvements are usually seen with much higher doses than what you would find in a normal diet, which is why supplementation may be needed to see a big payoff. Clinical studies use 1500-3000 mg per day, and that amount is generally deemed to be a safe long-term dose. Fortunately, taurine is super cheap. I typically take three of these at night before bed.
humanOS Catalog Feature of the Week
This week, we’d like to highlight our how-to guide for chrononutrition. We often fixate on what we are eating, when we are discussing diet and lifestyle, but we are gradually appreciating that when we eat also has a significant impact on our health and our daily performance.
This guide will help show you how to optimize your food timing, in alignment with the latest scientific research, to maintain robust circadian alignment and to ensure you are performing at your very best.
(PS: If you’re looking for a deeper dive into the subject of nutrient timing and other aspects of circadian physiology, please refer to our Circadian OS Program.)
Thanks, as always, for reading, and we'll see y'all next week!