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Regular trips out guard against depression in old age

New study finds clear link between cultural engagement and lower risk

Cambridge University Press

Regular visits to the cinema, theatre or to museums could dramatically reduce the chances of becoming depressed in older age a new study has found.

Researchers at University College London found a clear link between the frequency of 'cultural engagement' and the chances of someone over 50 developing depression. It is the first such study to show that cultural activities not only help people manage and recover from depression but can actually help to prevent it.

Their study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found people who attended films, plays or exhibitions every few months had a 32 per cent lower risk of developing depression, with those attending once a month or more having a 48 per cent lower risk.

Now its lead author, Dr Daisy Fancourt, wants to encourage greater awareness of the benefits so that people can take better control of their own mental health.

She said: 'Generally speaking, people know the benefits of eating their five-a-day and of exercise for their physical and mental health, but there is very little awareness that cultural activities also have similar benefits. People engage with culture for the pure enjoyment of doing so, but we need to be raising awareness of their wider benefits too.'

The study looked at data on more than 2,000 people over the age of 50, who took part in the long-running English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). This provides a rich source of information for researchers like Dr Fancourt and her colleagues, covering the health, social, wellbeing and economic circumstances of older people in England.

Along with her colleague, Urszula Tymoszuk, Dr Fancourt was able to look at data collected from people's answers to questionnaires and in one-to-one interviews over the course of ten years. This included information about how often they visited the theatre, concerts or the opera, the cinema, art galleries, exhibitions or museums. Their answers also revealed when participants reported being diagnosed with depression, and when they experienced symptoms that the pair could then measure on a scale widely used to spot people at risk of depression.

Even when the results were adjusted to take account of differences in people's age, gender, health and their levels of wealth, education and exercise, the benefits of cultural activities remained clear. Those benefits were also independent of whether or not people had contact with friends and family or took part in social activities like clubs and societies.

The researchers believe the power of these cultural activities lies in the combination of social interaction, creativity, mental stimulation and gentle physical activity they encourage.

Dr Fancourt said: 'We were very pleasantly surprised by the results. Notably we find the same relationship between cultural engagement and depression amongst those of high and low wealth and of different levels of education - the only thing that differs is the frequency of participation.

'Cultural engagement is what we call a "perishable commodity". For it to have long-term benefits for mental health, we need to engage in activities regularly. This is similar to exercise: going for a run on the first of January won't still have benefits in October unless we keep going for runs.'

She added: 'Depression is a major issue affecting millions of people. If we are starting to feel low or isolated then cultural engagement is something simple that we can do to proactively help with our own mental health, before it gets to the point where we need professional medical help.'

Dr Amanda Thompsell, chair of the old age faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: 'This paper highlights the good news story that doing something enjoyable is not just for pleasure - it can be positively beneficial for older people's mental health. The findings suggest that engaging in regular cultural activities such as visiting the theatre or cinema could be a way to reduce the risk of developing depression.

'However, such activities on their own won't treat depression. This requires an approach based on the use of talking therapies, complemented by the use of medication where an older person doesn't respond or when they have more severe depression.

'The College welcomes this paper and encourages further research into the important area of old age mental health.'

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A PDF copy of the paper is available on request

Notes to editors:

  1. Paper details: Cultural engagement and incident depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Daisy Fancourt and Urszula Tymoszuk (2018). British Journal of Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1192/bjp.2018.267

  2. About the author: Dr Daisy Fancourt is Senior Research Fellow/Wellcome Research Fellow in the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL. She specialises in psychobiology and social epidemiology, focusing on the effects of social and community participation on health, with a particular interest in the effects of arts and cultural engagement. Dr Fancourt has received awards from the British Science Association, British Academy, British Federation of Women Graduates, American Psychosomatic Society, Royal Society for Public Health and NHS England, as well as being named a BBC New Generation Thinker and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

  3. About the British Journal of Psychiatry: The British Journal of Psychiatry is a leading international peer-reviewed psychiatric journal, covering all branches of psychiatry with a particular emphasis on the clinical aspects of each topic. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the journal's overriding concern is to improve the prevention, investigation, diagnosis, treatment, and care of mental illness, as well as the promotion of mental health globally. In addition to a large number of authoritative original research papers from around the world, the journal includes editorials, review articles, commentaries on contentious articles, short reports, a comprehensive book review section and a lively and well-informed correspondence column. The journal is essential reading for psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and all professionals with an interest in mental health.

  4. About Cambridge University Press: Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University's mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 50,000 titles covering academic research and professional development, as well as school-level education and English language teaching. Playing a leading role in today's international marketplace, Cambridge University Press has more than 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world.

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