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One of the Best Things We Can Do for Ourselves as We Age

This will help feed your soul and boost your overall health.

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gif illustration of woman reading in bed, reading, healthy brain
Ana Curbelo
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Sometime during the early days of the pandemic, I started a new habit. Every morning, after pouring myself a cup of coffee, I get back into bed and instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media or checking my email, I purposefully pick up a book.

Then, for the next 20 minutes, I read. I sip my coffee, letting the caffeine do its thing as I pick up wherever I left off in my book (usually fiction). This ritual is one I look forward to, one that I relish in its simplicity. Now and again, I get off schedule, and fall victim to a random distracting thought, like that thing I need to order off Amazon. But my better, more productive days start with an open book.

The benefits of reading are many. Dr. John Y. Lee, assistant chief clinical officer at Executive Mental Health, says reading can help lower anxiety and help with relaxation, "even lowering an individual’s heart rate and decreasing blood pressure."

Lee says reading (novels in particular) can help us develop deeper empathy for others and learn how to identify emotions in others. And it can help us experience and process our own feelings. It can also lead to knowledge expansion and help us learn about other cultures, which can lead to a sense of deeper connection to others.

A growing body of scientific research, including that conducted by the National Institutes of Health, points to reading as a way to improve cognitive health and to help ward off the onset of dementia. A Healthline study titled "Benefits of Reading Books" cites how reading goes beyond brain strengthening into increasing empathy, alleviating depression and reducing stress — which all can lead to a longer, happier life.

Reading can also help with creativity and imagination, explains mental health professional Lee: "Not only does it provide escapist entertainment from the real world, but reading also can help create new neural pathways in the brain and help individuals to think about situations from new perspectives, in addition to acquiring new skills."

From a young age, I’ve longed for a good vocabulary. Even now, there’s nothing I love more than when I’m reading a book and come across a word I don’t know. Often I can figure it out via the sentence’s context. I’ll jot it down so that I can look it up later. I know from my own professional literary experience that a fascination with expanding my vocabulary has expanded my writing skills.

But despite all of the signs pointing to reading as an activity that builds overall wellness, it can be difficult to stick to a regular schedule of actually doing it. So, like so many other things in our lives, we must commit to reading, and make it a habit.

Kara Cutruzzula, author of Do It (or Don't): A Boundary-Creating Journal, says developing a consistent practice is key. "I’m a big believer in making a habit as easy as possible. If reading your current book feels more like an obligation than a treat, find a new book that actually excites you," said Cutruzzula.

Just as there’s no one-size, fits-all time for the act of reading, or the genre you choose, Lee suggests a morning session makes sense because this is when you’re fresher and your "brain is able to tackle new and complex ideas."

Nonetheless, not everyone is a morning reader like me. My husband’s preference is to open his book right before bed. This, too, is a good time to read, according to Lee who says it "helps people fall asleep faster and to stay asleep longer."

If you want to elongate — or jumpstart — your own commitment to reading, here are some tips:

Join a book club

Some people join book clubs because they want to read more, and may also appreciate the social aspect, both important contributors to health and wellbeing as we age. There’s a reason Oprah’s book club has been going strong since 1996, and why other celebrities like Emma Thomas and Reese Witherspoon have launched book clubs in recent years, as have tens and thousands of our friends and relatives.

As a member of a book club, there is also this benefit: In order to join in on the conversation, you actually have to read the whole book.

"Replace one hour of screen reading every day with one hour of high-quality reading and then see how you feel." After all, “reading at its best is fun, not a chore," says Cutruzzula.

Consider joining AARP'S Girlfriend Book Club, a closed Facebook group for women readers. You can win free books and hear from your favorite authors.

Enlist a reading partner

Reading may be a solo act, but there’s a whole community built around reading and bookstores and libraries. Cutruzzula points out that "outside accountability works wonders." So maybe a book club isn’t your thing. Maybe you don’t want to read a book by a certain deadline so you can discuss it with a group over wine and cheese.

Consider a reading accountability partner. This can be someone who shares similar reading goals and wishes to keep the practice going. You can agree to touch base once a month, in person or online, about the books you’ve read and the ones you want to read. This is a great way to get recommendations as well!

Discover your local bookstore

Sure, you could order your books off of Amazon, but you could also patronize your local bookstore. Get to know the owner or staff members and make yourself a regular presence. Let the store keepers know what you recently read and liked and seek their recommendations based on your reading history.

You might also attend bookstore events, like author readings, where you’re bound to discover even more wonderful reads.

Tomorrow morning I can’t wait to resume Claudia Dey’s Daughter, a book I picked up at Powell’s in Portland. And then this weekend, my plan is to browse my favorite local bookstore in Brooklyn. Maybe I’ll be drawn to a classic like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck or Anne Patchett’s latest book Tom Lake. The possibilities for reading are endless and I can’t think of a better way to enjoy 2024 than with a hot cup of tea and a new book.

Join a subscription service

Book of the Month is a curator of bestselling and new hardcover books, allowing you to select your favorites to be delivered to your home on your schedule.

AARP members get their first book for $5 and future books for $16.99 — cancel or skip at any time. If you sign up before June of each year, you get a FREE add-on book in July, just for being an AARP member. If you’re not an AARP member but registered on aarp.org, you get special benefits as well. Learn more.

Note: AARP and Book of the Month (BOTM) have a business relationship under which BOTM makes available special offers, free resources and more to AARP members and others.

How often do you read in a typical week? What book are you reading now? Let us know in the comments below.

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