Go ahead, plan those trips to the museum or a concert, to feed your longing for beauty and art. Not only will it give you a few hours of delight, it could contribute to a longer life. This is the striking conclusion reached by a study on older adults, published in December 2019 in the British Medical Journal.
Image Credit: Wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock
The association is dose-dependent, found the researchers. The more an individual spent time in artistic activities, the lower was the risk of early death. This finding could support social prescribing, which is an important cornerstone of health policy in the UK.
Older studies have shown that physical and mental health are boosted by frequent engagement with artistic endeavour. In fact, people with depression, dementia (a condition in which the memory deteriorates), chronic pain and general weakening of the constitution benefit from being exposed to the arts often. However, the effect of arts on survival is an open research question.
The current study was motivated by the need to answer this query. The researchers wanted to find out if there was any real link between the frequency with which people took part in the arts in any way, and overall death rates. They looked at over 6,000 England-based adults aged 50 years or above, who were participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). The study began in 2004-2005. On average, participants were about 70 years old.
At this point, the baseline frequency of actively participating in artistic activity was measured. This included going to the art galleries, museums, opera halls, concerts, art exhibitions and theaters. The follow-up lasted 12 years on average. NHS mortality data was retrieved during this period to record any deaths among those participating in the study.
The researchers then analyzed the death rates among people with varying rates of engagement with the arts. They compensated for socioeconomic and health disparities and found that the risk of death was reduced by 31% if people took part in such activities every few months, in relation to those who never did so. In other terms, the death rate in the first group was about 2.4/1,000 person years, but 5/1,000 person years in the second group.
When such activities were undertaken at least 1-2 times a year, the risk was still less, at 3.5/1,000 person years, than in those who never did any of these. The 14% reduction in risk was significantly lower than the reduction in those who were more frequently engaged with artistic activities.
Some of the reasons for the longer lifespan associated with greater engagement with the arts include, probably, a greater level of cognition due to having to appreciate and understand artistically conveyed messages and nuances, which cause improved thinking and understanding; better psychological and mental health along with improved social capital; a better sense of purpose in life, with correspondingly better immunity and healthy behavior; and higher physical ability and activity. These account for about 42% of the protective linkage.
However, even after adjusting for these factors, surprisingly, and even in groups who had issues with mobility, lived in deprived conditions, had little financial resources, or were living retired lives or in more inaccessible locations, the results did not change significantly.
The researchers suggest that increased social capital from cultural engagement helps people gain more knowledge and this in turn helps them age better. It helps them face life more calmly, improves coping abilities, and boosts their creativity and imagination. All of this builds resilience, which is invaluable to survival in changing life situations.
The observational study makes it impossible to draw any inferences as to the cause of the increased survival with engagement in artistic activity. A second limitation is that this is a snapshot of the degree of artistic activity at one point of time, which need not be accurate over a longer period of time. Only receptive engagement was covered, which may have overlapped with active participation in the arts.
The study benefits from the large number of participants, however. In addition, the mortality data is from a national database. They were also able to adjust for a number of factors which could have biased the results.
As a result, the researchers say, “Overall, our results highlight the importance of continuing to explore new social factors as core determinants of health.”
So what is the message? The editorial accompanying the piece spells it out in no uncertain terms: make sure everyone can take part in artistic and cultural activities as onlookers, spectators, and in other recipient roles, if they want to. In ordinary life, the very old, the very poor, the severely depressed and the very lonely people, who are those who stand to gain the most from being part of cultural activities, are at present those who have the least chances of actually doing so.
This calls for policies to make such healthful cultural activities available and accessible to all people, and especially those who are likely to reap the greatest benefit. Social prescribing, where older adults and other patients are referred to community-centered arts programs, is likely to gain support as a result of this study.
In addition, the researchers point out that the downward trend in the number of arts and music courses offered at schools and colleges, and in universities, is a disturbing one, particularly in view of the health benefits pointed out by this study, in addition to other earlier work.
The art of life and death: 14 year follow-up analyses of associations between arts engagement and mortality in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, BMJ 2019; 367 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6377, https://www.bmj.com/content/367/bmj.l6377