This is a column about how to live to a ripe old age, to avoid Alzheimer’s and a number of other ailments that afflict senior citizens. We are inundated with information about living a healthy life. Who doesn’t know about keeping cholesterol and blood pressure in check, about avoiding fatty foods and keeping our weight down? Here is one I’ll bet you haven’t heard that showed up in a research study of more than 3,600 men and women over the age of 50. The research came from the Yale School of Public Health and the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study.
First, do you read? The research study revealed that people who read books for as little as 30 minutes a day lived an average of two years longer than people who don’t. Odder still, book readers who reported that they read more than three hours a week were 23 percent less likely to die in a given year than their peers who read only newspapers and magazines.
Recent studies on adult reading tell us that reading over a lifetime can support healthy brain function. Simply put, “Word power increases brain power.”
So, what is it that makes reading books so developmental for our brains? Researchers believe that reading books, what they call “deep reading,” forces the brain to think critically and to make connections from one chapter to another. When we make connections, chapter to chapter and character to character, the brain forces new pathways between regions throughout the brain. Over time this promotes quicker thinking and fights the effects of brain decline that comes naturally with age.
What else other than reading books helps us to live longer? Learning a second language is a major plus. Those who are proficient at a second language are stronger at multitasking, superior at memorizing, and better at focusing on important information that those who are stuck in one language. The younger a person can began to study a foreign language the more likely they are to master it. In learning languages beginning early is a great help. In my years of working with college personnel I have had many who could speak two or more languages. One lady could speak five Southeast Asian languages. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate her nearly enough.
I think learning to use a computer is similar to learning a foreign language. Again, starting early is beneficial. The benefits, however, are the same whether you are younger or older.
Other major positives include learning to play a musical instrument and creating works of art. Being able to translate the music on the page into one’s brain and hands is like learning a foreign language. The same is true with taking a clean canvas and filling it with artistic designs. In younger years I played the trumpet. I also tried piano, French horn, and the guitar. None of those took with me like the trumpet. I played taps at funerals, in high school and college bands, and for a while in a jazz ensemble. My wife, Ruth, is still known locally for her paintings.
It is true that I have a vested interest in urging people to read. I write a weekly column. I also have written seven books with an eighth almost finished. Still, the research is pretty convincing. If you read something and do it often it is good for the development of your brain. If you read books and do it for three to four hours each week that is even better.
We have multiple studies that tell us to keep our bodies fit. They promote walking, lifting weights, and exercising in a number of ways. All are important. However, no muscle in the body is as important as the brain that controls them all. A favorite teacher used to say, “A word to the wise should be sufficient.”
— Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states. Books by Hopkins currently available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble include “Journey to Gettysburg” and “The Wounds of War,” both Civil War-era novels, and “The World As It Was When Jesus Came.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.