Health Benefits of Reading Books

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 02, 2022
4 min read

Levels of stress, depression, and anxiety are especially high in today’s hectic world. It can be hard to find time for self-care and especially hard to find time for leisure activities like reading. It’s worth it to try to fit reading into your life, though, as consistent reading can benefit your health.

Reading books can offer many benefits for your overall health. While these benefits primarily help the brain, they can also benefit your body.

Reading reduces stress and anxiety.Stress and anxiety in the U.S. are at an all-time high as we continue to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2022 poll conducted by the American Psychological Association found that:

  • 27% of respondents said that most days they felt so stressed they couldn’t function
  • Stressors included inflation, violence and crime, politics, and racial climate
  • 76% said that the future of the U.S. was a source of stress
  • Women aged 18-34 reported more stress than older women and men
  • 76% reported that stress affected their physical health

Reading is an excellent method of reducing stress. A 2009 study from Mindlab International at the University of Sussex found that reading was able to reduce stress levels by 68%. That made it more effective than other soothing activities like taking a walk or listening to music.

In general, meditative activities that force you to focus on a single task can reduce stress. Reading has the added benefit of engaging your mind and forcing your brain to be creative so you can imagine the story as you read. Dr. David Lewis, who conducted the 2009 study, explains that reading is “an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

Reading battles mental decline and dementia.Dementia is a general term for mental decline that includes difficulty thinking, remembering, or making decisions. Dementia mainly affects older adults. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were five million adults living with dementia, and they expect that number to rise to 14 million by 2060. 

Numerous studies have indicated a link between reading and brain health. Studies consistently show that participating in activities that engage your brain, including reading, can help reduce the chance of developing dementia.

  • A study published in 2010 assessed 942 adults to determine if participating in hobbies reduced their risk of dementia. The study found that nearly 54% of those who did not develop dementia read books consistently, while only about 39% of those who did develop dementia read books consistently.
  • A study published in 2013 assessed the cognitive activity of 1,651 participants over the age of 55. The study found that those who engaged in mentally stimulating tasks like reading and writing throughout their life had a much slower rate of mental decline, even when their brains showed signs of damage.
  • A study published in 2010 involved multiple observational studies on participants over the age of 60 and the influence of cognitive leisure activities, including reading, on the brain. Five out of six studies showed that starting these activities in middle adulthood reduced the risk of dementia while six out of seven studies showed that starting these activities late in life also reduced the risk of dementia.

Reading is therapeutic for your mental health. Mental illness is one of the most significant medical crises facing Americans. Mental illness refers to mental health conditions that affect your behavior, mood, and thinking, such as addiction, anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and schizophrenia. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2020:

  • Nearly 20% of adults (52.9 million people) in the U.S. lived with a mental illness
  • Only 46% of adults with mental illness received mental health services
  • 5.6% of U.S. adults (14.2 million people) had a mental health condition that severely interfered with everyday life
  • About 49.5% of U.S. adolescents ages 13-18 lived with mental illness
  • About 21 million U.S. adults and 4.1 million adolescents ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode
  • 19.1% of U.S. adults had an anxiety disorder and 31.9% of adolescents ages 13-18 had an anxiety disorder

The stress reduction that reading offers can help enormously when you’re already struggling with your mental health. But the benefits of reading extend beyond that, to the point that some doctors prescribe reading as a part of mental health therapy. This is called bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy is a practice that uses books as part of therapy. Your mental health professional chooses a book, fiction or nonfiction, and as you read through the book you discuss it together. Because bibliotherapy is usually used with other forms of therapy, it’s hard to judge exactly how effective it is, but the benefits shown by bibliotherapy include:

  • Developing empathy
  • Enhancing self-awareness
  • Increasing compassion
  • Promoting problem-solving

There isn’t much data about how much reading people should do every day. The 2009 study measuring reading and stress indicated that just six minutes of reading a day could lower stress levels. The 2010 study about hobbies and dementia showed that the best results came from participating in the hobby for at least an hour a day. 

You don’t want to add stress to your life by trying to fit a certain amount of reading into your busy schedule every day. Instead, find places you can fit it in and adjust where you can.