Reading good books enriches our lifes. We can share the experience and feelings of others, which sometimes are romantic, sometimes are painful. And by spending just a few days to read a novel we can jump into another time, in another society and in another personality. Reading books is really a good investment of the short time that is given us in life. But now a new study from Yale University shows that we not only gain knowledge and wisdom from reading fiction books, but that it can directly extend our physical life time.
The study, which is published in the September issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine, looked at the reading patterns of 3,635 people who were 50 or older. On average, book readers were found to live for almost two years longer than non-readers. “When readers were compared to non-readers at 80% mortality (the time it takes 20% of a group to die), non-book readers lived 85 months (7.08 years), whereas book readers lived 108 months (9.00 years) after baseline,” write the researchers. “Thus, reading books provided a 23-month survival advantage.” The paper also specifically links the reading of books, rather than periodicals, to a longer life. “We found that reading books provided a greater benefit than reading newspapers or magazines. We uncovered that this effect is likely because books engage the reader’s mind more – providing more cognitive benefit, and therefore increasing the lifespan,” the authors concluded.
Although I like the result of this study a lot, and I intuitively strongly believe in their conclusion, from a methodological point of view it suffers from the same shortcomings as many other retrospective social studies. The studies usually analyse questionaires they receive from randomly picked individuals. No doubt, analysing 3, 635 peoples health status and their reading behaviour is a vast amount of work and an association found between the reading habits and health status will be significantly and reproducible.
But what remains to be shown is the causality. I.e. can I increase my life expectancy (or this of my children) if I or if we force ourself to read more books ? And this is not clear, and the Yale study also has no answer to this. In epidemiology there is this well-known phenomenon of “reverse causation”, which in the current studies could also underly the reported association. If one assume that any genetic or epigenetic factor (or a combination of those) improves a persons health status in general (including mental health, but also neuro-sensory fitness such as eye vision), this will independently lead to an incraesed longevity but at the same time also to a higher prefenrence to enrich ones life by reading good books. So these two outcomes of a questionaire, health status/life expectancy and frequency of reading books will automaticly be linked, cause they are influenced strongly by the same underlying inherent factors (genetic composition and epigenetic praegung). So they are clearly linked to each other, but not causing each other.
The only solid prove of a causation of book reading and longevity would be a so-called randomized study (as they are state-of-the-art in clinical trials to test the therapeutic effect of new drug or method). Here, a large number of volunteers have to be recruited, and they assigned to a control and a test group randomly. And these two groups have to follow a defined protocol, whether they liek it or not. The control group should not read books (even if some group members are real book freaks), whereas the members of the test group all should read a defined minimal numbers of books (per month) whether they like books or not. And this study has to be followed over years or decades, of course. One could then do a simple non-parametric test (like Man-Whitney or Wilcoxon) for the attained age at death and could easily found if an intentional increase in book reading helps to extend life span.
I am happy to notice that for me this problem does not exist, since I like to read books quite naturally. Assuming that I am not hampered by other life-shortening factors (such as working as a roof-layer or on a oil-platform or smoking or drinking extensively) I know that I fell in the group of 23 month longer than average live span, whether it is caused by my love to read books or by another congenital factor.
Twenty-three month is really a lot, sondiering that I have already gained 19 extra month by living with our dog Ivo, another 37 month by having a higher education, and another 16 month by living in a stable partnership. Whow, so much extra time, I have to think of how to spend it useful.
I first will read more books, I think. I have recently discovered Gaito Gasdanov, a contemporary of Vladimir Nabokov with a great classical-modern style. I bought for the coming holiday season:
“The Return of the Buddha “
Gazdanov was born in 1903 in St Petersburg, to an upper-middle-class family that was Ossetian in origin but Russian-speaking and Orthodox. At 16, he joined the White Army, although he never was a diehard anti-Bolshevik: it seems he joined up mainly out of curiosity, and chose the Whites because they were closest to hand. In October 1920, Gaito Gazdanov, then a young soldier, served on an armoured train on which he fought on the machine-gun platform. His train was stationed on the Crimea peninsula, where he found plenty of time to carouse with lowlifes in towns like Sevastopol or Bakhchisaray. The boy who had started reading Kant at 13 was as much an outsider in the Crimean underworld as he was among his fellow soldiers.
One day he returned to his armoured train only to find that it had been captured by the Red Army. He escaped in November by crossing the Black Sea to Constantinople with some of his fellow soldiers. He was one of more than 150,000 refugees – the sad remains of General Wrangel’s defeated White Army, along with any civilians who managed to make it on board – on a fleet of 126 ships. Like many of them, Gazdanov ended up in an overcrowded camp in Gallipoli funded by the French. France had bet on the wrong side in the Civil War, and was eager to stop supporting the camps. But it would provide a more permanent home for many of the refugees, among them some of Russia’s most important writers.
At the refugee camp in Gallipoli, Gazdanov soon quarrelled with a superior and was forced to leave. He returned to his studies, first in Constantinople and then in Bulgaria. He arrived in Paris in 1923, at a time when it seemed that half the city’s taxi drivers were Russian aristocrats or White Army officers, like Lolita’s Mr Taxovich with his bushy moustache and an ‘atrocious accent to his careful French’. Emigrés loitered over cheap drinks in Montparnasse, and settled on the rue de Vaugirard, or near the Orthodox Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky, or in suburbs like Boulogne-Billancourt. The appeal was obvious: many educated Russians had learned French as children, and Russia had always admired French culture.
The penniless émigrés were rarely able to practise their old professions, and were often reduced to menial labour. Gazdanov’s first job was lugging 36-pound sacks on and off the barges of the Seine; when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he got work washing locomotives. He was homeless for a winter, sleeping on pavements and in Metro stations, until he was taken on at the Citroën factory; he gave that up when he was almost killed by an oncoming lorry, and realised he was going deaf. He got a desk job at Hachette, but found it too difficult to pretend to work for eight hours a day, and soon left that too. Then he settled on the profession that he would stick with for twenty years: driving a taxi at night.
He claimed that the night taxi driver’s life was worse than the Civil War, but it gave him plenty of time to write and lots of good material. In 1930 he had his first major success: An Evening with Claire, a lyrical, semi-autobiographical novel that was praised in the émigré press. He was compared to Nabokov, the multilingual star of the young émigré writers, and to Ivan Bunin, who in 1933 would become the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize. Bunin himself praised Gazdanov’s work.