Museum trips and visits to art galleries are often thought of as good for the soul – a means of satisfying our curiosity about the world and, in some cases, making us feel more in touch with our lives. However, a research team from University College London (UCL) has gone one step further with their findings. The UK-based researchers have published a new study which claims that frequent visits to museums and galleries will statistically lead to a longer life.
The study, which was published in the British Medical Journal in December, looked into a range of cultural activities and the length of the lives of the people who took them. Along with trips to museums and visits to art galleries, the study also included theatrical experiences and concert-going. The findings are likely to raise an eyebrow or two among many museum sector professionals who may have suspected something of the sort from anecdotal evidence alone.
The Findings From the Research
According to the team from UCL, people who occasionally visit museums, theatres and galleries are more likely to be in better all-round health and, therefore, stand a greater likelihood of living past the mean average life expectancy. It appears – according to their research, at least – that receiving a regular ‘culture fix’ really does add time on at the end of a person’s life. This is borne out by the fact that their work showed that people who visited museums and other centres of cultural value more often were statistically the least likely to die early. In other words, the more you do something culturally significant, such as visiting an art gallery, the better your chances are of enjoying a longer lifespan.
The published report stated that people who visited a cultural institution every few months or so could expect a lower risk of dying prematurely. This was found to be almost a third as low in comparison to people who never – or only very rarely – visited a museum, concert or gallery space. However, people who only occasionally went to a museum or a theatrical performance still benefited from the effect of their cultural activities. The study showed that individuals who went to a museum or a theatre just once or twice in a twelve-month period would, on average, benefit from a 14 per cent lower risk of passing away earlier than a typical lifespan.
What’s more, the data that these findings were drawn from was not drawn from an insignificant pool. The UCL team looked at a dataset that was formed from a sample group of more than 6,000 adults in England. This group was made up of entirely of people who were aged 50 years or more. In fact, the group who were asked about their cultural habits were all partaking in a wider study into the effects of ageing. The UCL researchers merely analysed the data that had been gathered regarding cultural activities. As such, it is not yet fully known what other factors might be are at play with the link that has been established between a dynamic cultural life and longevity. What appears to be beyond doubt, however, is the fact that such a link exists.
Interpreting the Link
One of the researchers, Professor Daisy Fancourt, who works at UCL’s Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health, said that other behaviours – such as alcohol consumption, whether or not a subject smokes and how much exercise he or she gets – are already known to be predictors of mortality. However, culture has never been viewed before in this light. Although Fancourt admitted that such behaviours were more likely to have a greater significant impact on longevity, she argued that leisure and pleasure activities should now be seen as supporting good health in later life and, ultimately, greater longevity.
Deciding to gather data on how often an individual got a fix from cultural activities may have seemed like a strange idea when the study began back in 2004 but it certainly seems worth it now that such a strong statistical link has been established. Each of the participants in the research was followed for an average of 12 years to gather data on a range of ageing issues which included the attendance or not of exhibitions but not cinema trips for some reason. Throughout the study, the deaths of the individuals concerned were recorded via data gathered from the National Health Service, allowing the researchers to establish how life expectancies differed according to cultural activities like museum visits.
Fancourt said that engaging with wider culture can act as a stress relief mechanism which is why it may be beneficial for longevity. She claimed that building a sense of creativity may help people to adapt to changing circumstances as they age. However, the report’s authors also conceded that wealthier people were more likely to be able to engage in certain forms of cultural activity that poorer people may not. After all, overall wealth is already known to have an impact on life expectancy.
That said, Fancourt thinks that a greater sense of purpose in life as people age can help everyone to live longer. “[When added to]… a larger body of evidence, we are getting an increasingly rich picture on how arts can benefit health,” she said. “It is not about one single outcome, either. Culture can produce wide-ranging benefits and support healthier, longer-lived lives.”
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.