Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Cardio for the mind

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions but a finding published in Social Science & Medicine may change my thinking on this tradition for 2017. And it won’t be a new gym membership. Yale University researchers found that reading books prolongs life. This is good news. While I like running and exercise, I love to read!

The findings are less about the act of reading and more about type of reading. Book reading as opposed to more general reading facilitated a “survival advantage” the researchers attributed to enhanced cognitive engagement.

The researchers analyzed the reading habits of 3,635 people aged 50 and older and observed a 20 percent reduction in mortality for those who read books compared to those who did not. They believe the effect was created by the cognitive engagement that comes with the “slow, immersive” process of book reading. Cognitive engagement involves a commitment to exert the effort necessary to comprehend complex ideas. That process leads to a stronger mind, a not-so-trivial component of health and well-being. It also perhaps leads to enhanced emotional intelligence which may contribute to survival.

Importantly, the findings were true despite the participants' level of education, gender, health status, and baseline cognition. Also, the amount of time reading wasn’t a determining factor. Participants spent nearly twice the time reading periodicals as books. The researchers found that “any level of book reading gave a significantly stronger survival advantage than reading periodicals.”

So if you’re thinking about resolutions for the New Year, consider immersing yourself in a good book. You might even think of it as cardio for the mind!

Below are the top cognitively engaging books I read in 2016:

Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation | by Dennis McAuliffe, Jr. 
Good books can make you think and re-think. McAuliffe succeeds at this with a sad, yet honest personal story that shows how legacy matters; that choices made long ago have long-term implications. Bloodland tells the story of the Osage Nation and the “Reign of Terror” perpetrated against tribal members in the 1920s. McAuliffe investigates the death of his Osage grandmother, learning and sharing more about himself in the process than I suspect he imagined when he started. It was the personal connection to my own life (the Osages in my family) and a gripping, suspenseful narrative that made this book so engaging. The book also provided some valuable historical and present day context for our visit to the Osage Nation in Oklahoma this fall.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon | by David Grann
So I knew the Amazon was an exotic place. What I didn't know when I started reading The Lost City of Z was that David Grann would manage to bring the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the Amazon into my living room. The Lost City of Z is the story of Percy Fawcett, one of the World’s great explorers whose dangerous and difficult work brought light to the great shadows of the Amazon. Fawcett’s engagement was his theory of an ancient and advanced civilization lost to the ages somewhere in this great South American jungle. Grann’s deep research and descriptive style combined to make this an accessible, thrilling read. Upcoming in 2017, I am looking forward to Grann’s coverage of the Osage Reign of Terror in his soon to be published Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis | by J.D. Vance
Reading can cause reflection and enhance awareness. Hillbilly Elegy does both for its readers. Vance shines the light on his own life and the issues of poverty, opportunity, and responsibility in Appalachian America. Vance relives a difficult childhood and engages the reader by generating more questions than answers, nudging others to examine the uncomfortable issues affecting a large percentage of Americans and consider solutions to some difficult problems.

The Greatest: My Own Story | by Richard Durham, Muhammad Ali
The news of Muhammad Ali’s passing motivated me to learn a little bit more about one of the most celebrated and controversial athletes of all time. I am not old enough to recall Ali’s work in the ring. My earliest memory of him is a 1980s commercial for bug spray. But for me, as a child of the '70s and '80s, Ali joined Babe Ruth, Jack Nicholas, and Wilt Chamberlain as sort of mythic figures in my immature sports mind. Reading Ali's 1975 memoir was interesting because it was the voice, 40 years later, of a myth from my childhood and a man for whose accomplishments and controversies I now had context. Co-authored by Richard Durham, The Greatest was a well-written, first-person narrative of Ali's life (or least what he wanted us to know), in and out of the ring, from his late childhood in Kentucky through his defeat of George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in 1974. It definitely did what good biographies do; it humanized Ali. And while the myths around athletes enjoyed by my young-self have long been shattered by maturity, The Greatest was not just a window into Ali’s life but into a time in my own when athletes weren't really real.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE | by Phil Knight
My favorites list this year is filled with memoirs, and I think it’s the feeling of spending time with the author that makes this genre so engaging. Phil Knight was fun to hang out with in Shoe Dog. Knight takes the reader back to the early days of the company that eventually became NIKE. While the book is not so much about Knight’s personal life (there are references to family involvement but none that are very revealing), his personal feelings about his professional life shed light on the cultural development of NIKE and the persistence it takes to create something world renown. Knight’s experience is textbook engagement. He built is work around his heart and, ultimately, shared it with the world.

Natchez Burning | by Greg Iles
Natchez Burning is my favorite fiction read of the year. The first volume of a trilogy that addresses the racial history of the American south, Natchez Burning’s 800-page marathon seems more like a 400-page sprint. Iles strikes a balance between pace and character development that allows the reader time to generate emotional responses to the characters but keeps the yarn spinning. Books two and three of this trilogy are on my "To Read" list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m writing about one or both of them at this time next year.

Bavishi, A., Slade, M., & Levy, B. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social Science & Medicine, (164), 44-48.

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