There’s increasing interest in the health benefits of the arts, particularly in the United Kingdom where a doctor may hand you a prescription for a visit to a museum or art gallery instead of a drug.
Social prescribing, as it’s called, is said to improve both mental and physical health, and quality of life.
What surprised me is there’s now data to show that engaging in the arts also provides a dramatic boost to life expectancy.
Various scientists have offered up a number of theories to explain why engaging with the arts could help lengthen your life. Researchers have pointed to studies suggesting that experiencing the arts improves mental health, strengthens social relationships, reduces loneliness, increases physical activity levels and more.
Reduces Your Risk of Dying by 31 Percent
Although these older studies support the idea that art boosts longevity, two researchers from University College London decided to carry out a more thorough study of the relationship.
The researchers analyzed data from a representative sample of 6,710 men and women aged 50 or over who lived across England.
They asked each individual about their “receptive arts engagement,” or the frequency of visits to concerts, opera, live theater, museums, galleries and exhibitions.
Researchers also asked a host of questions about each individual’s life. This included marital status, education, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, and activity levels.
Every two years they interviewed each participant for a total of seven interviews over 14 years, during which time nearly 30 percent of this group of seniors died.
What the researchers discovered is that those who engage in the arts six times a year or more reaped the benefit of a 31 percent lower risk of dying compared to those who never engage. Those in the middle group, who paid a visit up to twice a year, enjoyed a 14 percent lower risk.
The Relationship to Lifespan is Strong
Over half the association between the arts and life expectancy is independent of all the factors the researchers could identify that might explain the link, such as exercise and income level.
Co-author Professor Andrew Steptoe was fascinated by the results.
“One might think that people who go to museums, attend concerts and so on are healthier than those who don’t. Or are wealthier, more mobile, and less depressed, and that these factors explain why attendance is related to survival.
“But the interesting thing about this research is that even when we take these and many other factors into account, we still see a strong association between cultural engagement and survival.”
His fellow author, Dr. Daisy Fancourt, added, “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 of as health related, do support good health and longevity.”
The Arts are Meaningful in so Many Ways
Since the study was observational, it isn’t possible to establish why visiting an art gallery or a museum could help you live longer.
Jennifer Novak-Leonard, a researcher in cultural participation at Northwestern University in Chicago, commented, “This study is intriguing, given the substantial magnitude of the reported effects on mortality, but like most studies of association, this one raises more questions than it answers.”
For those in the “never” category of attendance who need a little persuasion to watch a live performance of the play Death of a Salesman, or to wander around an exhibition of paintings, Dr. Novak-Leonard sums up what you’re missing, saying, “Engaging with arts can stretch our imaginations, inspire and cultivate creativity, celebrate meaningful stories, provide social connectivity, build social capital, challenge us, and provide exposure to new knowledge or ideas.”
Of course, during the pandemic it might be hard to venture out to a museum or certainly to an opera or theater production, since most are still closed, but there is good news. Many world-class museums are offering online virtual tours of certain exhibits.
You can also watch recordings of many theater productions, operas or concerts online as well. While it’s not the same as the real thing, it’s better than nothing.