An oldie but a goodie: this post was originally published on January 14, 2016.
Do you have a goal to read more books? If you don’t, maybe you should! Besides being downright fun, science shows that reading for pleasure can actually be good for your mental and physical health.
According to a study by Dr. Josie Billington at the University of Liverpool, people who read regularly for pleasure report lower levels of stress and depression than non-readers. Pleasure readers also report higher levels of self-esteem and greater ability to cope with difficult situations. Researchers believe this may result from readers gaining expanded models and repertoires of experience when they read that allow them to look with new perspective and understanding on their own lives. According to an expansive study carried out by the UK’s National Literary Trust, reading for pleasure has also been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness in adults and increase ability to prioritize and make decisions.
Reading may be the perfect bedtime activity, as reading books generates stronger feelings of relaxation and well-being than other common bedtime rituals such as watching television, engaging with social media, or reading other material such as news articles or beauty magazines. Research conducted in 2009 at the University of Sussex showed that reading may actually be the most effective way to overcome stress and wind down, beating out favorites such as listening to music, enjoying a cup of tea, and even taking a walk. It only took six minutes of reading for participants to see significant improvement in both muscle tension and heart rate.
Finally, reading throughout your lifetime can help protect your mental fitness in old age and even help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A study by Robert Wilson of Rush University Medical Center found that those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, earlier and later on in life experienced slower memory decline compared to those who didn’t. Also, according to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2001, adults who engage in hobbies that involve the brain, like reading or puzzles, are less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease.
To help you populate your reading list, here are some of our current favorite pleasure reading books – all with a health or medical twist! What can we say – we didn’t become medical librarians for nothing!
Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Stiff is an oddly compelling and often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.
The Man Who mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents. If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales remain, in Dr. Sacks’s splendid and sympathetic telling, deeply human. They are studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, and they enable us to enter the world of the neurologically impaired, to imagine with our hearts what it must be to live and feel as they do.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Medical science would have ended up in severe stagnation were it not for the discovery of HeLa cells — an immortal cervical cancer sample responsible for polio vaccines, gene mapping, AIDS and cancer research, and plenty more staggering advances. But until recently, nobody knew the life story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom the culture was originally (and unknowingly) taken.
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
In The Poisoner’s Handbook, Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes, chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey’s Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue.
The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arthur Allen
Few diseases are more gruesome than typhus: transmitted by body lice, it causes hallucinations, terrible headaches, boiling fever, and often death. The disease plagued the German army on the Eastern Front and left the Reich desperate for a vaccine. For this they turned to the brilliant and eccentric Polish zoologist Rudolf Weigl, who had created the first typhus vaccine in the 1920’s. The astonishing success of Weigl’s techniques attracted the attention and admiration of the world, giving him cover during the Nazi’s violent occupation of Lviv. His lab soon flourished as a hotbed of resistance: Weigl hired otherwise doomed mathematicians, writers, doctors, and other thinkers, protecting them from atrocity. The team engaged in a sabotage campaign by sending illegal doses of the vaccine into the Polish ghettos while shipping gallons of the weakened serum to the Wehrmacht. Among the scientists saved by Weigl was a gifted Jewish immunologist named Ludwik Fleck. Condemned to Buchenwald and pressured to re-create the typhus vaccine under the direction of a sadistic Nazi doctor, Fleck had to make an awful choice between his scientific ideals or the truth of his conscience.
Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service by Maryn McKenna
In this riveting narrative, Maryn McKenna – the only journalist ever given full access to the EIS in its fifty-three-year history – follows the first class of disease detectives to come to the CDC after September 11; the first to confront not just naturally occurring outbreaks but the man-made threat of bioterrorism. They are talented researchers – many with young families – who trade two years of low pay and extremely long hours for the chance to be part of the group that has helped eradicate smallpox, push back polio, and solve the first major outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, toxic shock syndrome, and “E. coli” O157.
The Family that Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D.T. Max
For two hundred years a noble Venetian family has suffered from an inherited disease that strikes their members in middle age, stealing their sleep, eating holes in their brains, and ending their lives in a matter of months. In Papua New Guinea, a primitive tribe is nearly obliterated by a sickness whose chief symptom is uncontrollable laughter. Across Europe, millions of sheep rub their fleeces raw before collapsing. In England, cows attack their owners in the milking parlors, while in the American West, thousands of deer starve to death in fields full of grass. What these strange conditions–including fatal familial insomnia, kuru, scrapie, and mad cow disease–share is their cause: prions. Prions are ordinary proteins that sometimes go wrong, resulting in neurological illnesses that are always fatal. Even more mysterious and frightening, prions are almost impossible to destroy because they are not alive and have no DNA–and the diseases they bring are now spreading around the world.
Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead by David Casarett
As a young medical student, Dr. David Casarett was inspired by the story of a two-year-old girl named Michelle Funk. Michelle fell into a creek and was underwater for over an hour. When she was found she wasn’t breathing, and her pupils were fixed and dilated, but after three hours of persistent work, a team of doctors and nurses was able to bring her back. It was a miracle. If Michelle could come back after three hours of being dead, what about twelve hours? Or twenty-four? What would it take to revive someone who had been frozen for one thousand years? And what does blurring the line between “life” and “death” mean for society? In Shocked, Casarett chronicles his exploration of the cutting edge of resuscitation and reveals just how far science has come. He begins in the eighteenth century, when early attempts at resuscitation involved public displays of barrel rolling, horseback riding (sort of), and blowing smoke up the patient’s various orifices. He then takes us inside a sophisticated cryonics facility in the Arizona desert, a darkroom full of hibernating lemurs in North Carolina, and a laboratory that puts mice into a state of suspended animation. The result is a spectacular tour of the bizarre world of doctors, engineers, animal biologists, and cryogenics enthusiasts trying to bring the recently dead back to life.
Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders
For too long, the gut has been the body’s most ignored and least appreciated organ, but it turns out that it’s responsible for more than just dirty work: our gut is at the core of who we are. Gut gives the alimentary canal its long-overdue moment in the spotlight. With quirky charm, Giulia Enders explains the gut’s magic, answering questions like: Why does acid reflux happen? What’s really up with gluten and lactose intolerance? How does the gut affect obesity and mood? Communication between the gut and the brain is one of the fastest-growing areas of medical research. Our gut reactions, we learn, are intimately connected with our physical and mental well-being. Enders’s beguiling manifesto will make you finally listen to those butterflies in your stomach: they’re trying to tell you something important.
What are some of your favorite reading picks? Let us know in the comments below!