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Longevity through reading books

When is the last time that you read a book from cover to cover and thoroughly enjoyed the experience? If your answer is “not recently” or “I really can’t remember when”, you are not alone. Reflecting what is clearly a worldwide trend, evidence suggests that Barbadians are no longer reading as much as before.

However, according to the findings of a study conducted in the United States and published recently in the journal Social Science and Medicine, persons who do not read books, especially if they are over the age of 60, could be missing out on an invaluable health benefit which almost every human being yearns for. Namely, the chance of adding a few extra years to their time on this earth.

Up to about 25 years ago, long before the hugely popular android cellular phones were even thought of as a consumer product, or Internet use was as common and widespread as it is today, or video games like Pokémon 3 and cable television with dozens of channels were so readily available, reading books ranked highly among the favourite pastimes of Barbadians.

When schools were closed for the long summer vacation, as is currently the case, it was normal to see droves of children paying regular visits to the main public library in Bridgetown or the district branches at Oistins, Six Roads, St Philip or Speightstown, to borrow as many as six books in one go to take home to occupy their spare time when they were not indulging in games and other outdoor activities.

Barbadian society at the time placed great emphasis on the promotion of reading, not only for leisure purposes but also as a source of life-long education outside the formal setting of the classroom. Just as it was for children, the public library too was a favourite spot for grown-ups, especially men who would spend considerable time painstakingly moving from aisle to aisle where books were grouped according to the subject matter, or in the reference section, reading up on philosophy, politics, science and other topics.

The national fascination with books was reflected in the near 100 per cent literacy rate which Barbados boasted of at the time. While it was normal on the streets to see people with a book as they went about their business, on the buses, as people made their way to and from work, reading a book also was how many commuters passed the time.

While the men read heavy stuff or then popular Louis L’Amour novels about the exploits of cowboys in the American Wild West, the women showed a preference for indulging in romance found in popular Mills & Boon novels. The demand supported a thriving business for bookstores, especially in the 1970s and 80s, when the likes of Roberts and the Wayfarer were around but which today are no more.

Will the recent Yale University School of Public Health-sponsored study that found reading a book for as little as 30 minutes a day may help people live longer, rekindle interest in the reading of books? It is too early to say but it may have some impact, especially in our present environment where people have become worried about death because of a spate of sudden deaths which has caused many to reflect on life. The study, involving 3,635 persons over 60 years old, said reading books appeared to lower the risk of death by about 20 per cent.

Participants were divided into three groups: those who read up to three and a half hours a week; those who read more; and those who never picked up a book at all. After taking into account factors such as age, gender, education and income, the researchers found that, in general, those who read books lived up to two years longer than those who did not.

“People who report as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read,” Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale University, told the New York Times. “And the survival advantage remained after adjusting for wealth, education, cognitive ability and many other variables.”

The researchers found that reading newspapers and magazines helped, too, but not as much as books. The lesson, however you look at it, is that reading is definitely good for you but more so if it happens to be a book. So here’s to a lot more happy reading and a few extra years of life!  

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