Reading to escape isolation

The Bottom Line

  • Whether voluntary or not, social and physical isolation can affect us all. It can increase feelings of loneliness, and is associated with physical and mental-health problems such as depression and anxiety.

  • To enjoy themselves, relax or feel less isolated, many adults read regularly.

  • Reading affects health, but also people's well-being. It can relieve symptoms related to depression and dementia, among others.

We are all cut off from the world right now, given the social and physical distancing and confinement measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that in "normal" times, about 40% of older adults feel lonely, while 7-17% report being socially isolated. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, social isolation and loneliness are not quite the same.(1) Social isolation refers to a real lack of social support and significant contacts, while loneliness refers to the person's belief that he or she is lacking or has lost company and experiences negative feelings that result from it. (2; 3) There is no doubt that the current context risks to exacerbate both social isolation and the feeling of loneliness among many people.

In this troubled time when we are isolated, but also bombarded with stressful information, we must find solutions to entertain ourselves and escape (if only for a moment) from this reality. Could reading be a solution?

What research tells us

A recent, moderate-quality systematic review identified 51 articles examining the benefits of recreational reading (for fun or for learning) on different populations, including adults with and without health problems.(4)

Among adults in general, studies clearly show that reading promotes pleasure, relaxation, a better understanding of oneself and one's social identities. As a form of entertainment, it can also help people to “escape” troubled times, but also to open up to other cultures and points of view. Reading also promotes empathy, social inclusion, self-esteem and community cohesion. Finally, some studies show that reading books can also improve memory and attention.

If you have special health needs, be aware that reading can help reduce your stress levels and increase your sense of relaxation. Reading can also help reduce some of the symptoms of depression and dementia.

Do you like reading fiction novels? Being interested in the characters and understanding their motivations can translate into real life by allowing you to develop social skills such as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Do you prefer magazines? Reading magazine articles also has positive effects: for example, if the article in question deals with the benefits of exercise, it will certainly make you think about exercising for your own health!

Reading in all its forms!

Overall, research evidence indicates that recreational reading can bring a range of benefits to individuals and to society. In the current context of social isolation and confinement, several options are available to you in order to benefit from the pleasures of reading:

- Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in books that have been waiting for you;

- Revisit the classics that have influenced you (and that have been sleeping in your collection of reading materials for a long time);

- Visit the website of your public library (many of them offer digital loans of books and audio books);

- Join a virtual book club to share your thoughts about what you are reading or to listen in on a book being read by others; or

- Share your passion for reading by reading to other people using video applications like FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Messenger or others (for example, if you are a long-distance caregiver why not read to your loved ones, or if you are an older adult, why not organize “story time” with your grandchildren).

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Author Details


  1. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Tackling a silent beast : Strategies for reducing loneliness and social isolation. 6 February 2019.

  2. Dickens AP, Richards SH, Greaves CJ, et al.Interventions targeting social isolation in older people: A systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2011; 11:647. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-11-647.

  3. Grenade L, Boldy D. Social isolation and loneliness amongst older people: Issues and future challenges in community and residential settings. Aust Health Rev. 2008; 32:468-478.

  4. The Reading Agency. Literature review: The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment. London: The Reading Agency; 2015.


DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.