Seniors & Aging

Reading doesn’t guarantee a longer life, but these seniors know it offers its own rewards

Donna Warren, 75, of Bellingham, looks for history books for her husband at the annual Ski to Sea Book Sale in May at the Bellingham Public Library.
Donna Warren, 75, of Bellingham, looks for history books for her husband at the annual Ski to Sea Book Sale in May at the Bellingham Public Library. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Ron Peterson finds nearly an hour a day to read, mostly history books and spy novels. Ann Walton reads at least an hour a day, usually nonfiction, and is active in the Great Books reading program.

Donna Warren enjoys adventure and romance novels and likes doing chores while listening to audiobooks. Her husband, Walt Warren, is partial to Cold War novels and how-to books.

Each in their own way, the Bellingham seniors appreciate the benefits of books – from great storytelling and the fascination of true life, to the hands-on value of concrete knowledge.

Reading books brings other benefits, too, ones that might not be so apparent at first blush. Researchers say book readers can experience reduced stress, slowed onset of dementia and improved memory, sleep and concentration.

Now there’s another reason to read books, perhaps the most important reason of all: Longer life.

Read more, live longer

A July 2016 study suggests “the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them.”

The study at the Yale University School of Public Health was conducted by professor Becca Levy, lecturer Martin Slade, and research assistant Avni Bavishi.

For their report, “A chapter a day – Association of book reading with longevity,” they crunched a mountain of statistics gathered on 3,635 people in a long-running nationwide study of people 50 and older conducted by the University of Michigan and supported by the National Institute on Aging.

3.5 hour a week spent reading showed a 23-month “survival advantage.”

On book reading, people in the study fell into three groups: those who don’t read books, those who read up to 3.5 hours a week and people who read more hours per week. A similar three-tier approach measured people’s time reading magazines and newspapers.

Data for the study also included death records and cognitive scores based on tests for recall and mental status.

The statistics-heavy study is packed with numbers, but when it comes to living longer, numbers are what matter.

Looking at the survival rate of the 3,635 people over a 12-year span, the Yale researchers found 33 percent of non-book readers died in that period, compared to 27 percent for book readers.

More important, people who read books for more than 3.5 hours a week – about a chapter a day – had a 23-month “survival advantage,” nearly two years of longer life, because they had a reduced risk of death over the dozen years studied. People who read up to 3.5 hours a week lived longer than non-readers, but not as long as more avid readers.

People who read newspapers and magazines also lived longer, but not as long as book readers.

Previous research indicates that cognitive engagement required for reading can improve vocabulary, reasoning, concentration and critical thinking skills, as well as social improvements such as empathy and emotional intelligence.

Avni Bavishi, Yale research assistant

People might think book readers live longer because they tend to be female, college educated and wealthier. Book readers generally fit those categories, but the researchers accounted for those factors statistically.

According to the researchers, cognition scores didn’t explain the extra years for book readers; instead, the impact of reading on the subjects’ cognition was a key to longer life.

“We did not specifically look into the mechanism of cognition on longevity for our study,” Bavishi explained in an e-mail. “However, previous research indicates that cognitive engagement required for reading can improve vocabulary, reasoning, concentration and critical thinking skills, as well as social improvements, such as empathy and emotional intelligence. All of these measures have been linked to survival in other studies.”

Studies are needed to determine if there’s a similar benefit to reading e-books or listening to audiobooks and whether the type of book – fiction versus nonfiction, or various genres – makes a difference.

Statistics won’t guarantee longer life for any particular reader. Fortunately, books offer their own rewards, as these Bellingham seniors know.

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Volunteer Ron Peterson, 71, stacks books at the annual Ski to Sea Book Sale in May at the Bellingham Public Library. Peterson says he is an avid reader and listens to books on tape when he is driving. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Ron Peterson

Peterson, 71, retired from driving a truck at the Georgia-Pacific mill. Soon after, relatives convinced him to volunteer with Friends of Bellingham Public Library, which hosts book sales to benefit the library.

Peterson stays busy as a part-time delivery driver, and he bikes and hikes. He enjoys spy novels and history, including Northwest history by Whatcom County writer JoAnn Roe.

“I don’t devour books,” he says. “I enjoy them.”

Peterson was pleased to hear that books might add years to readers’ lives.

“People who do read have other interests,” he says. “You’re not just sitting there in a vacuum. You have something to live for.”

Ann Walton

Walton, 80, retired from teaching, the same profession her parents pursued, so reading is a natural fit. Not to mention that her grandfathers were named Homer and Virgil, and that her parents knew Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago educator who helped start the Great Books program in the 1940s to support readings and discussion of great writers.

Walton reads at least an hour a day, mostly nonfiction and mysteries. She also reads to lead the Great Books discussion group at Bellingham Senior Activity Center.

She joined the group about six years ago and became discussion leader about six months ago. The group has about eight regulars who do the advance reading and show up ready to talk.

“That’s a really nice discussion group,” Walton says. “Everybody is welcome. Nobody has to sign up and pass a test.”

Donna and Walt Warren

Donna Warren, 76, used to work as a 911 dispatcher and in the records office at Bellingham Police Department. She’s a regular at library book sales, looking for adventure and romance novels.

“I enjoy getting lost in a book,” she says. “It’s a stress-reliever.”

She also enjoys listening to audiobooks while doing chores around the house.

“It just makes it easy,” she says. “I could go on two or three days listening.”

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Donna Warren, 75, of Bellingham, at the annual Ski to Sea Book Sale in May at the Bellingham Public Library, looks for the adventure and romance novels she likes to read. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

At library sales she also hunts for history books for her husband. A retired IBM technician, Walt Warren, 78, likes technical how-to books, because he has a metalwork shop at home. He likes World War II histories, Western and Cold War novels and books about aviation and submarines, among other topics.

As a boy, he didn’t see much value in reading, so he had to repeat fourth grade. His life changed when he discovered a series of WWII novels for young people.

“It influenced my love of history,” he says.

Now he’s a regular reader, with perhaps a thousand books in his library.

“I’m interested in all kinds of things,” he says. “My dad used to say, ‘You can learn almost anything if you can learn how to read and how to understand what you’re reading.’”

Books by the numbers

▪ According to a Pew Research Center survey released in September 2016, two-thirds of people 65 and older read a book in the previous 12 months, a notch below the 73 percent rate for Americans as a whole. The typical American read four books the previous year; the typical senior reads three.

▪ Closer to home, people 61 and older account for 21 percent of the “active borrowers” at Bellingham Public Library, meaning they used their library card at least once in the previous three years.

Book reading groups

Bellingham Public Library runs a monthly Bellingham Reads book discussion group. Details: bellinghampubliclibrary.org and 360-778-7323. For book club kits, contact Jenni at 360-778-7217 or jjohnson@cob.org.

Great Books group meets at Bellingham Senior Activity Center. Details: 360-733-4030.

Whatcom County Library System offers book clubs with varying schedules, topics and formats. Details: 360-305-3600. Schedule:

Blaine: 1-2:30 p.m. third Friday of month.

Deming: 7-8:30 p.m. third Tuesday.

Everson: 3-4:30 p.m. first Wednesday.

Ferndale: 2:30-4:30 p.m. second Tuesday.

Lynden: 2-3:30 p.m. first Wednesday and 10:30-noon second Saturday.

Point Roberts: 7-9 p.m. last Wednesday.

South Whatcom: 1-2 p.m. first Tuesday and 6:30-8 p.m. second Monday.

Sumas: 10-11 a.m. second Saturday.

Village Books hosts several book groups. Details: rebecca@villagebooks.com, villagebooks.com, or 360-671-2626.

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