Read for your life!

Graybeard, from game Skyrim

A Graybeard, the vaguely religious old scholars / monks of Skyrim.

Does exercise of the mind cause longevity more than exercise of the body?

In fantasy novels, wizards tend to live much longer than ordinary people, although they don’t stay young. They generally tend to be healthy and spry for their age, though. This trope probably came to be because the real-life template for wizards were sages, who needed that long and healthy life to acquire all that knowledge and insight. So the long life was the cause rather than the effect, whereas in the fantasy stories it is the other way around.

Then again, the other day I read in Dagens N√¶ringsliv (Daily Business in Norwegian) that male priests and university lecturers lived on average 11 years longer than farmhands and deckhands. It was implied that these groups represented the opposite sides when it came to career and longevity. I have mentioned before that gardeners tend to live long as well, but these were the groups that were listed this time, here in Norway at least. That brings up a fascinating reflection: If exercise is good for your health, why do those who don’t have time for it outlive those who do it for a living?

There is hardly any doubt that physical movement is a good thing. I know this from experience. Back when I was on the verge of losing my job due to wrist and arm pain, my doctor told me to exercise – fast walking at the very least – for an hour a day. In 2005 I started doing just that, and my body healed considerably. Not only did the pain recede, but skin rashes and wounds that refused to grow also healed. Moving about is warmly recommended. But it is not something scholars are famous for. Well, they may pace back and forth, but they are not famous for excessive physical activity. Mental activity, on the other hand…

In my own fantasy novel in progress, The 1001st Book, the final Gift of Thoth is that studying his books will not contribute to your aging. That is obviously not what happens in real life, but there may be more subtle ways in which serious study contributes to a long and reasonably healthy life. Let me bring up two hypotheses.

One is that aging of the body is a very slow process. It is usually when the mind falters that things take a sharp turn for the worse. When Alzheimer’s disease, small strokes or other forms of dementia robs you of your survival skills, you get in trouble: You forget to eat, or forget that you have already eaten; you forget to take your prescription drugs, or forget that you already took them; you forget to wear suitable clothes for the weather; you try to do things that your body is no longer strong enough for; your friendships unravel and you may even distrust your own family, causing fear and frustration. In short, a lot of stress for body and mind hasten your decline.

Building a lot of connections in your brain will not hold dementia at bay forever, but it is shown to delay its onset quite a bit. (It happens faster once it happens, but by then you may already have outlived your less thoughtful classmates.) Lifelong studying helps build those plentiful connections. So does spiritual practices. Whether it is the actual study or the willpower you train up by sticking to it, the result is that the higher centers of coordination in the front of the brain grow larger and stay alive longer, as well as developing multiple pathways to connect the various parts of the brain.

The other hypothesis I have is that people who read a lot tend to eat less. While not all scholars are thin, it is a stereotype for a reason. They are certainly less likely to be obese than the average, not to mention their opposites. With all due respect for running around, there is only so much you can do if you are alleviating your boredom by eating. If you don’t have the boredom in the first place because you are deep in a book until hunger starts gnawing on your stomach, that’s one less problem. And there is also the aforementioned willpower to consider.

We live in a world where there is a certain magnitude of chaos, so we may fall over dead any day for any number of reasons. Doing one thing or another will not guarantee us a long life. But still, if someone came to me and asked: “What shall I do to live a long life in this world?” I would feel obliged to reply: “Read a lot. Don’t rest until you have read a thousand books, not counting airport literature. And then keep reading. Read for your life. Read heavily, think deeply, and live purposefully.”

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