Culture vultures may live longer


Study highlights health benefits of engaging with the arts.


It’s not exercise, but wandering around a gallery could be just as good for your health, research suggests.

UpperCut Images, via Getty Images

By Natalie Parletta

Those who think enjoying a good dose of culture is arty-farty could be missing out, with a new study linking arts appreciation to living longer.

Researchers at University College London, UK, found that people who regularly go to the theatre, concerts, the opera, museums or art galleries have a lower risk of dying than those who refrain.

This adds to evidence linking art engagement with physical health and wellbeing.

The “universality of art and the strong emotional responses it induces”, leads some researchers to suggest it has evolutionary benefits, write Daisy Fancourt and Andrew Steptoe, although others question whether art is “an evolutionary parasite”.

Fancourt and Steptoe argue that creativity and imagination have been linked to increased survival throughout human evolution and that arts engagement enhances cognition, empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

The arts could also give life a greater sense of meaning, reduce risk taking behaviours, get people out and reduce sedentary behaviour and loneliness – all of which are associated with better health outcomes.

Titled “The art of life and death”, the study, published in the journal BMJ, followed more than 6000 adults aged 50 and older for 14 years in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA).

Participants self-reported arts engagement at the study’s inception, along with a comprehensive range of demographic, behavioural, socio-economic and health factors. Mortality data was sourced from National Health Service records.

While cognition, mental health and physical activity were protective, arts involvement was independently linked to lower mortality after these variables were factored in, and this persisted through several analyses.

Overall, people who engaged in the arts once or twice a year had a 14% lower chance of dying than those who never got involved, while enjoying culture more regularly was associated with a 31% lower risk.

The study’s strengths include its size and scope, although the researchers acknowledge that it only recorded arts engagement at one time point and it was observational.

In a related commentary, Nicola Gill and co-authors from Canterbury Christ Church University, UK, note that people with lung disease, depression or loneliness, who could derive the most benefits, were least likely to engage in the arts.

“Work must now be done to ensure that the health benefits of these activities are accessible to those who would benefit most,” they write – including children.

“The current study should add weight to growing concerns about the decline in arts subjects and music in schools and universities.”

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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
  1. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/arty-farty
  2. http://www.euro.who.int/en/publications/abstracts/what-is-the-evidence-on-the-role-of-the-arts-in-improving-health-and-well-being-a-scoping-review-2019
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19900185
  4. https://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6377
  5. https://www.elsa-project.ac.uk/
  6. https://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6774
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