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Updated: Reading Books Will Help You Live Longer, Researchers Say

3591108120_b73d0df696_bThe NYTimes and other news orgs may have just fallen into another correlation/causation trap. Yesterday they published an article which implies that you will live longer if you read books:

Reading books is tied to a longer life, according to a new report.

Researchers used data on 3,635 people over 50 participating in a larger health study who had answered questions about reading.

The scientists divided the sample into three groups: those who read no books, those who read books up to three and a half hours a week, and those who read books more than three and a half hours.

The study, in Social Science & Medicine, found that book readers tended to be female, college-educated and in higher income groups. So researchers controlled for those factors as well as age, race, self-reported health, depression, employment and marital status.

Compared with those who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, and those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. Book readers lived an average of almost two years longer than those who did not read at all.

The NYTimes made it sound like reading more lead to living longer (see the headline) when in fact there’s no evidence showing causation which is exactly what the researchers concluded.

Edit: I followed up by email, and one of the paper’s authors told me that:

The NYT article did a good job summarizing our key findings: reading books confers a survival advantage, after adjustment for a whole host of covariates (sex, age, wealth, health, education, depression, etc). For this reason, we believe there is a strong connection between reading and longevity.

What are the chances they are right?

I for one don’t believe them. But then again they are the ones with the PhDs.

Do you think there’s a real connection, or is this a spurious correlation?

What I think we have here is a study which looked at population data and found a correlation between life expectancy and reading. And without data to explain the connection, that correlation doesn’t mean anything. Without evidence of a real connection, I see it as it’s as much a spurious correlation as the relationship between suicides and US spending on science, tech, and space.


 image by ZapTheDingbat

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poiboy August 4, 2016 um 4:02 pm

maybe not longer.. but definitely better.

Smart Debut Author August 4, 2016 um 4:42 pm

Silly Nate,
Science has proven that only reading literary fiction in full-priced Hardcover editions will extend your life.

Reading genre fiction on ereaders and smartphones has been scientifically proven by Naomi Baron to cause permanent memory loss, lower sexual attractiveness, cognitive impairment, and erectile dysfunction.


Nate Hoffelder August 4, 2016 um 4:48 pm


Fjtorres August 4, 2016 um 4:58 pm

There is one potential mechanism that might allow for causation: brain activity levels. Boredom is known to be deadly.

That said, I personally think they are dealing with a selection bias issue.

Robin Brooker August 4, 2016 um 7:12 pm

If brain activity levels lead to a longer life then paranoid schizophrenics should all live past 100 years.
Don’t rely on qualifications to measure intelligence. It merely means they are good at passing examinations. A number of medical doctors I have known couldn’t diagnose a decapitation without running a series of tests.

Fjtorres August 4, 2016 um 10:18 pm

Brain activity in terms of time spent on intellectual pursuits, not biochemical activity.
Again, lack of such activities and boredom has been linked to depression, loss of mental function in old age, and lower life spans. Rather like how widowers have lower life expectancy than same age males with living wives.
So it is not totally implausible but a proper study that could actually prove their "findings" would have to start with non-readers, half picking up the habit late in life, and track their reading activity til death. Not a quick and easy thing to do.

Mary August 5, 2016 um 9:20 am

You are on the right track. As a person ages and is no longer able to do all the things he used to do, an avid reader always has an incentive to get up in the morning because a book is waiting for him. This is why it is so important to keep books accessible to as many as possible via digital readers and to enhance those readers to their fullest extent.

Frank August 5, 2016 um 1:39 pm

I am not a scientist, but I think people that read books often are going to live longer, because the person that reads books is going to think about health more often than a non-reader.
So I think reading is symptom of a long-living person.

Fjtorres August 5, 2016 um 5:09 pm

Which is why I suggested that a study that aspires to prove their hypothesis needs to start with non-readers.

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