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Regular visits to concerts, museums and the theater may mean a longer life, study suggests

photo of audience in theater
You may want to include “attend more arts-related events” among your New Year’s resolutions for 2020.

Middle-aged and older adults who regularly go to concerts, museums, art galleries and the theater tend to live longer than their peers who never attend such “receptive arts” events, according to a study published this week in The BMJ.

The more often people make visits to various arts venues, the lower their risk of an early death, the study also found.

“While other health behaviors like smoking, alcohol and exercise are undoubtedly bigger predictors of mortality, these leisure and pleasure activities that people don’t think as a health-related activity do support good health and longevity,” said Daisy Fancourt, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of psychobiology and epidemiology at University College London (UCL), in an interview with CNN.

As background information in the study points out, previous research has found links between engagement in the arts and the prevention and treatment of several physical and mental conditions that can occur with aging, including depression, chronic pain, cognitive decline and frailty.

But whether cultural activities are associated with a longer life has been less clear. Fancourt and her co-author, Andrew Steptoe, a professor of behavioral science and health at UCL, decided to see if they could fill that research gap.

Study details

For their study, the two researchers used data collected from 6,710 British adults, aged 50 and older, who have been interviewed every two years as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA), which is now in its second decade. In ELSA’s 2004-2005 wave of questions, participants were asked how often they attended receptive arts events — in other words, how often they went to the theater, concerts, opera, museums, art galleries and exhibitions.

Based on those answers, Fancourt and Steptoe divided the participants into three groups: those who never engaged in receptive arts activities, those who did so infrequently (no more than once or twice a year) and those who did so frequently (at least every few months).

The participants were followed for up to 14 years. During that period, 2,001 of them (29 percent) died.

Fancourt and Steptoe then looked for links between those deaths and the frequency with which people attended arts events. They found that almost half — 47.5 percent — of the people who never visited cultural venues died during the study’s follow-up period, compared to 26.6 percent of those who went to arts events infrequently and 18.6 of those who did so frequently.

The researchers then recalculated the data to adjust it for age and various health and socioeconomic factors (such as chronic medical conditions, household income and educational level) that can affect longevity. They found such factors mattered. Wealth, for example, explained about 9 percent of the association between arts attendance and mortality. Things like cognitive abilities, mental and physical health, marital status, physical activity and social engagement also played a role.

But after accounting for those factors, attending arts events still appeared to confer a protective edge. The readjusted data revealed that compared to people who never engaged in arts activities, people who did so once or twice a year were 14 percent less likely to have died during the study’s follow-up period.

The drop in risk was even greater among the frequent art-goers — 31 percent.

Interesting, but not definitive

This was an observational study, so it can’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between attending arts events and a longer life. Also, it measured people’s involvement in the arts at a single point in time, which may not have been a true reflection of how often they pursued such activities.

In addition, all the study’s participants were British. The findings, therefore, may not be applicable to other groups, including Americans.

Still, the results are intriguing, particularly since other research has linked engagement in the arts to several factors known to be associated with a longer life, including lower levels of chronic stress, reduced feelings of loneliness and a greater sense of purpose in life.

“Further, creativity and imagination, which are an intrinsic part of artistic expression, have been linked to increased chance of survival across the evolution of our species,” write Fancourt and Steptoe. “So there is a strong theoretical rationale that underlies the hypothesis that arts engagement could be linked to people’s chance of survival.”

A powerful gift

You may, therefore, want to include “attend more arts-related events” among your New Year’s resolutions for 2020.

And, as an editorial that accompanies the new study suggests, you may also want to keep this research in mind as you make your final gift selections this holiday season.

“The painting set for a grandchild, a trip to the pantomime with your children, the quest pleasure of a good book, or a night out dancing with your partner. They all have the power to change a life,” the editorial points out.

FMI: The study appears online in The BMJ’s December — or “Christmas” — issue, which, as its editors point out, publishes research papers on more “light-hearted” subject matters than during the rest of the year. Studies in the Christmas issue must still, however, meet the journal’s “high standards of novelty, methodological rigour, reporting transparency, and readability as apply in the regular issue,” the editors stress.

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