The real art of living longer should begin in childhood

Now, here’s an interesting one. A rich cultural life helps you live longer. I’m not surprised. I’ve always believed in theatre as enriching for all ages.

I remember often taking my grandchildren to the theatre, ballet, museums, singalongs and someone saying I was spoiling them, giving them too many treats.

Theatre, art, singing, dancing, pantomimes are more than treats, they’re life.

And so the research shows. In a recent BMJ paper, scientists have found a link between engagement in the arts, any art, and not dying.

As Daisy Fancourt and Andrew Steptoe say, even people who engage with cultural activities infrequently have a 14% lower risk of dying at any time than those who never engage.

But people who engage with arts every few months have a 31% lower risk of dying.

Arts activities have far-reaching effects on health because they combine psychological, physical, social, and behavioural factors with an intrinsic desire to enjoy the experience, and to engage.

Previously studies have shown arts engagement can help both mental and physical conditions, including depression, dementia and chronic pain. But how could it help you live longer?

Being involved in the arts could be linked to longevity by alleviating chronic stress and depression. It enhances social interactions, builds group support and reduces loneliness. It builds cognitive strength and promotes empathy, social cohesion and emotional intelligence. As a bonus it counteracts inactivity, brings a greater sense of purpose in life, increasing creativity and imagination.

Studies that focus more broadly on “leisure” have found positive effects on premature mortality, as have two Scandinavian studies of going to the cinema, concerts, art exhibitions and museums. But evidence from the current generation of older adults in other countries is thin on the ground.

Also, it’s still unclear whether socio-economic status, health, lifestyle, cognitive state or other social engagement could explain the effect. In this new study, researchers explored the association between mortality and the frequency of arts engagement in older adults who were tracked for 14 years.

But cultural engagements were measured at only one point in time so the researchers were unable to include historical factors such as participation in cultural activities in childhood.

That’s clearly important because if the arts have the power to add years to life and quality to life, then every child should be able to participate.

This study should add weight to growing concerns about the decline in arts subjects and music in schools and universities.