When Melody Overtakes Malady

Looks at the correlation between participating in cultural activities and keeping healthy. Cultural activities that can promote health; Explanation given by psychologist Lars Bygren and colleagues at the University of Umea in Sweden on how culture keeps people healthy.

By Jane Mendle, Annie Murphy Paul, published on May 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The arts can uplift, inspire, and instruct. But can they also save lives? Asurvey of almost thirteen thousand people reveals that those who participated in cultural activities least frequently were one-and-a-half times more likely to die during the nine-year study than those who participated most frequently. Such activities included reading, playing an instrument, and going to concerts, museums, the movies, and the theater.

Lars Bygren, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Umea in Sweden aren't sure how culture keeps us healthy, but they have a few ideas:

Artistic expression. A tear-jerker film or a rousing symphony can stimulate strong emotions--without causing real-life problems. Research shows that releasing powerful pent-up feelings is good for the body as well as the soul.

Drawing strength from stories. Seeing a conflict resolved on the stage or on the page may prompt people to address their own problems, Bygren suggests. Some works, he says, "may enhance people's reflection on their life situation and enable them to prepare for coming events in their minds."

Stimulating entertainment. The stimulation of nerve fibers releases hormones that may strengthen the immune system and improve resistance to disease. And environmental enrichment has been shown to increase the number of glucocorticoid receptors in the brain--a development that may protect against depression.

Friends of the arts. Meet a pal at the movies: "Attending cultural events widens a social network and gives the feeling of belonging to a group," Bygren notes. "This itself could be an important determinant of survival."

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that cultural activity may be part of the reason the rich live longer than the poor. Those wishing to emulate the cultured people in Bygren's sample, however, had better get season tickets: they attended cultural events at least eighty times a year, or once every four days.