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Novel approach: Expand your lifespan by reading books

By Margaret Jennings

Leafing through a tome for 3.5 hours a week can add almost two years to your life, researchers have found. Margaret Jennings talks to people aged over 50 about their reading habits Reading by the book to expand your lifespan.


GETTING your hands on a summer blockbuster can be pure escapism. Linked to time out, did you know that if you stick your head in a book regularly, you could be improving your chances of living longer?


Researchers at Yale University who asked 3,635 participants aged over 50 about their reading habits, found that those who read books for over 3.5 hours a week (about half an hour daily), lived an average of almost two years longer than non-readers.


That extended lifespan applied to all reading participants, regardless of gender, wealth, education or health factors, the study found.


In a Youtube video, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr Sanjay Gupta, says research shows regular reading helps reduce your stress levels, improves your attention span and possibly is good overall for your mental functions.


“You could reduce your ratio of cognitive decline by up to 32% and it’s fascinating to see how the brain responds, even if the body is sitting still, looking at those pages,” he says.


For instance, if you are reading a scene that is very active in a book, let’s say a thriller, the areas of the brain called the motor cortex — responsible for movement — may start to light up.


Meanwhile, the Yale researchers found that those who read books, rather than other material such as magazines or periodicals, were at an added advantage on the longevity front.

Here, four people aged over 50 talk about their reading habits.


Former RTÉ Sunday Game Live host Michael Lyster, who is now enjoying more time for reading since he retired, says at the moment he’s revisiting the Diaries of Samuel Pepys. Though written some 350 years ago, he describes it as “a journal of human consistency”.


A favourite book of his from the past, is The Long Walk, the true-life account by Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish soldier captured by the Russians in 1939, but who escaped with six colleagues and made an incredible journey through Siberia and the Gobi Desert to freedom. It was the basis of the 2010 film The Way Back, starring Colin Farrell, he adds.


Dr Sabina Brennan, author of the recently published 100 Days To A Better Brain, and a Trinity College Dublin neuroscientist says: “Reading has always been important to me, as it gives me insight, expands my understanding and has the added bonus of boosting my brain health.”


So no persuasion is needed with Sabina regarding its positive ageing effects.


“The book that stands out most from my childhood was actually one of my dad’s. I would lose myself for hours reading about homo sapiens, hermaphrodites, heritability, genetics, evolution and diversity. The illustrations were wonderful.


“I enjoy autobiographies and when it comes to fiction I am, surprise surprise, drawn to books that get inside people’s heads. I loved [Gail] Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’m currently reading Westover’s Educated, in paperback, [Tess] Gerritsen’s I know a Secret, on Kindle, and listening to Erin Kelly’s Stone Mother while walking.


As CEO of Active Retirement Ireland, Maureen Kavanagh says she knows from the organisation’s members that reading helps to keep them mentally agile and to make social connections. She herself has always “one or two books on the go”, adding: “I never feel alone when I have a book.”


She especially loves detective thrillers and science fiction, having over the years read through the full Tolkien library, all the Harry Dresden books, Michael Connolly, and Harlan Coban.


“I am currently reading John Connolly’s A Book of Bones, one of 17 books written by the Irish author about the strange character Charlie Parker. This book takes me from Portland Maine to pre-Roman ruins in North England and it’s deep, dark and mysterious.”


Professor Billy O’Connor, who is head of teaching and research physiology, at the UL Graduate Entry Medical School and writer of Inside The Brain blog, says books have changed his outlook on people and the world.


Science and Human Values, by Jacob Bronowski awoke his curiosity for the natural world and ignited his desire to become a scientist, while his favourite book ever is Awakenings, written by Oliver Sacks (also made into a film), which he describes as “a deeply moving commentary on the human condition and an enlightened understanding to suffering, that provides consolation to the outcast, the underdog and the misunderstood”.


For the summer, he is reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, a wide-ranging summary of decades of research into how people make decisions.


“Kahneman suggests that mental wellbeing results from a shift in mental focus away from our remembering-selves and back to our moment-to-moment experiencing-selves,” he says. “He advocates that this rewires the brain to put us back in charge of how we interpret our thoughts and emotions. It’s useful information indeed for a long and happy life.”


This post was originally posted at www.irishexaminer.com.

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