Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt : Exploring the Long-Term Relationship between Cultural Engagement and Health

May, 2014

There is ample evidence that engagement in cultural activities – across the art forms – has a beneficial effect upon both physical and psychological health. But most of the evidence deals with relatively short-term engagement, over the lifespan of a finite project or a randomised controlled trial, perhaps. This project – based within the strategic agency, Arts for Health, at Manchester Metropolitan University – considers how we might explore this relationship in the longer term.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Nordic countries – with both the inclination and resources to explore this connection – are leading the field. In the early 1990s, a Swedish team revisited a cohort of 12,982 people who had taken part in a survey in 1982–3 which included questions about cultural engagement. They found that 533 men and 314 women had died during the intervening years and that, after adjusting for a range of demographic and lifestyle factors, cultural engagement seemed to increase survival chances. This landmark study, which was published in the British Medical Journal and repeated five years later with the same results, tentatively indicated possible areas of future research and was taken up by research teams throughout the Nordic region. Teams in Finland have substantiated the link between cultural participation and survival in large population samples, specifically in relation to external causes of mortality such as accidents and suicide. In the Norwegian county of Nord-Trøndelag, where biological samples and lifestyle data have been collected since the mid-1980s, questions about cultural engagement were introduced into the latest round of surveys (2006–8). This population-wide databank holds the potential for elucidating longitudinal connections between cultural engagement, self-reported health and the body’s physical and chemical properties.

Participation in the Cultural Value Project has enabled meetings with many of the esteemed researchers in this area of research, facilitating consultations in the Nordic countries about the work that has been done to date and the methodological challenges that remain in the future. At the same time, discussions have been undertaken with those at the forefront of similar research in the UK, from statisticians at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, responsible for interpretations of the Taking Part survey of arts participation, to representatives of arts and health organisations who actualise the relationship between arts participation and health on a daily basis.

Viewed from its midpoint, this project raises as many questions as it answers, not least in relation to why cultural engagement might have a beneficial impact upon health and life expectancy. Various explanations have been offered, ranging from alterations in brain morphology to better functioning of biological regulatory systems to increased social capital to epigenetic phenomena. The next three months will be spent trying to unravel this connection while paying close attention to the distinction between passive attendance at cultural events and active participation in arts activities.

You find out more about our project on the blog.