Reading Improves Memory, Concentration, and Stress

man sitting on couch smiling down

Curling up in your favorite armchair, cracking open a book, and diving into a real page-turner offer far more benefits than an entertaining and relaxing way to unwind after a long day. Reading is actually an important health habit for your brain because it improves memory, concentration, and stress, among other big benefits.

The Benefits of Reading Books

From keeping your mind sharp and building empathy to boosting your vocabulary and reducing stress for a better night’s sleep, the benefits of reading may surprise you, whether you like novels or nonfiction books. These benefits can last a lifetime, beginning in early childhood and continuing through the senior years. Here’s a glimpse at how reading books can change your brain — and your body — for the better.

Keep Your Mind Sharp

No doubt you’ve heard the phrase, “Use it or lose it.” If you don’t exercise your body, you’ll likely lose strength, stamina, and endurance. Think of reading as a workout for your brain that literally changes your mind. According to the American Academy of Neurology, the brain-stimulating activities from reading have been shown to slow down cognitive decline in old age with people who participated in more mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes. It also has shown a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental capacities.

Build Empathy and Curiosity

When you get lost in a good read, it gives you the power to build empathy and spike your curiosity. “Reading expands a person’s appreciation toward other life experiences the reader is not personally experiencing, especially when reading topics that are not related to that reader’s job or lifestyle,” says Wade Fish, director of National University’s Graduate School.

“I personally enjoy reading historical accounts. I recently read a book written by author David McCullough about the Wright Brothers and their work to bring about flight. Reading about it makes me more curious about travel and how it has evolved. I also enjoy visiting places where historical events have occurred after reading about them and to ponder the challenges overcome and failures experienced before success was accomplished,” he adds.

Essential Brain Development in Children

The positive effects of reading begin in childhood and play a key role in youngsters’ overall development. According to Jennifer Duffy, graduate school dissertation chair at NU, “Reading is a fundamental skill needed to function in society. Words — spoken and written — are the building blocks by which a child’s mind grows. Reading is not only essential to a child’s verbal and cognitive development, but it also teaches the child to listen, develop new language, and communicate.” She says books also open a child’s imagination into discovering his or her world.

Reading fiction also helps children reach the developmental milestone known as “theory of mind,” the capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires that may differ from their own. A study published in Science, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reveals evidence that reading passages of literary fiction (versus nonfiction or popular fiction) enhance readers’ performance on theory of mind tasks.

Build Your Vocabulary

When you read for your own enjoyment or read to your children, it’s like a vocabulary rocket booster. A study published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research links fourth-grade reading skill to the rate of change in vocabulary growth between the fourth and 10th grades. As an adult, being an avid reader introduces you to new words in context and gives you a greater command over language, a skill that enhances your professional and academic life.

Reduce Stress

As an adult learner juggling work, school, and family responsibilities, chances are you’re looking for quick ways to relax and unwind. You may be surprised to learn that reading ranks right up there with yoga and humor to reduce stress. One study found that after a group of 24 healthy adults participated in a stressful task then read for 60 minutes, they experienced a significant reduction in anxiety, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Get Better Sleep

If you’re up tossing and turning at night and don’t go to sleep within about 20 minutes of going to bed, Mayo Clinic recommends leaving your bedroom and doing something relaxing, such as reading or listening to soothing music. Go back to bed when you’re tired and repeat as needed.

Another great bedtime routine is reading to your children. Duffy reads to her three young boys every night to stimulate their thoughts and awaken their intellect. Reading is also an excellent way to close the day as it both simultaneously relaxes and calms the busy mind.

In our digital world, it’s easy to become so preoccupied with social media and the internet that we often don’t contemplate reading books. Oxford Learning reports that when it comes to learning, paper reading has many more benefits than online reading: It increases retention and comprehension, it’s more intentional than mindlessly scrolling online, and it engages multiple senses — touching, seeing, feeling, and even smelling. To return to everyday reading, the best advice is to turn off the television and other electronics and enjoy the relaxation of reading a good book, whether for your own enjoyment or to help broaden your child’s imagination.

law books on a shelf

What Should I Read?

The best advice is to turn off the television and other electronics and enjoy the relaxation of reading a good book, whether for your own enjoyment or to help broaden your child’s imagination. Read anything and everything, just be sure to pick up a real book instead of spending all your reading time on a screen.

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