3 Ways Cultural Engagement Could Help Keep Depression at Bay

Museums, movies, and concert-going might lower depression risk, research shows.

Posted Dec 29, 2018

Pexels/Creative Commons
Source: Pexels/Creative Commons

A decade-long study has identified a strong correlation between cultural engagement and a lower risk of depression among women and men over age 50. The British researchers found that older adults who attended movies, concerts, opera, the theater, or went to museums, art galleries, and other cultural events — at least once a month — were much less likely to develop depression. “Cultural engagement appears to be an independent risk-reducing factor for the development of depression in older age,” the authors said.

This paper, “Cultural Engagement and Incident Depression in Older Adults: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging,” was recently published online in the British Journal of Psychiatry. As the title suggests, the 2,148 participants in this 10-year study were all part of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) project.

The researchers speculate that the triad of (1) social interaction, (2) cognitive stimulation, and (3) gentle physical activity — which are all associated with cultural engagement — create a winning formula that helps keep depression at bay.

The first author of the recent study on depression and cultural engagement, Daisy Fancourt, is a senior research fellow in the department of behavioral science and health at the Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care at University College London. Fancourt conducted this research along with her colleague, Urszula Tymoszuk.

Turhan Canli, an associate psychology professor at Stony Brook University, who was not involved in this research, described the findings as "intuitively appealing." In a statement, Canli said, “If you enjoy cultural engagement, enjoy. If you never tried it, give it a try. If you think you hate it, but actually never tried [it], try to keep an open mind; perhaps you will surprise yourself.” I agree.

Anecdotally, as someone who is 50+ and fits the age demographic of the study's cohort, I can corroborate the latest findings linking cultural engagement with fewer depressive symptoms. Whenever I participate in cultural activities, I seem less likely to be depressed. Of course, because correlation is not causation, identifying a correlative link between these two things presents a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Which came first, seeking cultural engagement or not being depressed?

Pexels/Creative Commons
Source: Pexels/Creative Commons

For me, the million-dollar causal question would be: Do I tend to get out of the house and engage in more cultural activities when I’m not feeling depressed, or does getting out of the house and pursuing cultural engagement make me less depressed? Although it’s impossible to identify causation, I have a hunch that forcing myself to stay culturally engaged is prophylaxis that reduces my risk of developing depression.

That said, there is another caveat: I’ve been prone to clinical depression since adolescence. Therefore, as an older adult, I am extremely proactive about filling my daily or weekly calendar with "tonic levels" of specific activities I’ve self-identified through trial and error as having a dose-response that makes me less likely to get depressed.

For example, to keep my depression at bay, my weekly routine includes at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) most days of the week, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) at least twice a week, keeping my finger on the pulse of all the latest scientific research being published online throughout the day, writing blog posts a few times per week, playing with my 11-year-old daughter, regular face-to-face social interaction with friends, going out dancing once a week, etc.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the weekly activities I've cobbled together to help reduce my incidence of depression include a combination of three things: physical activity, cognitive stimulation, and social interaction. Again, this triad appears to be a winning combo that helps older adults reduce their risk of depression.

Perceived Social Isolation and Loneliness Are Correlated With Depression 

"[Cultural engagement] also provides social engagement, reducing social isolation and loneliness. Engaging with the arts is stress-reducing, associated with lower stress hormones such as cortisol, and also lower inflammation, which is itself associated with depression," Daisy Fancourt said in a statement. (See, "Cortisol: Why the 'Stress Hormone' Is Public Enemy No. 1" and "Negative Moods May Trigger Inflammation.")  

Keith Fargo is the director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago, Illinois. Although Fargo was not involved in this ELSA-based study, he is enthusiastic about the findings. "Being socially or culturally active checks a lot of important boxes that may help reduce depression or cognitive decline. These activities stimulate thinking, they can evoke enjoyable feelings and emotions, and they often provide opportunities for interaction with others — all things that can enhance mental health,” Fargo said.

What are the main takeaways on seeking cultural engagement to minimize depression risk? Fancourt summed up her prescriptive advice in a statement: “Taken as a whole, the end result is very likely not only a lower risk for depression but also lower risk for dementia, chronic pain, and even premature death. So in the same way we have a 'five-a-day' [recommendation] for fruit and vegetable consumption, regular engagement in arts and cultural activities could be planned into our lives to support healthy aging.”


Daisy Fancourt and Urszula Tymoszuk. "Cultural Engagement and Incident Depression in Older Adults: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing." The British Journal of Psychiatry (First published online: December 13, 2018) DOI: 10.1192/bjp.2018.267