Regular visits to the theater, art galleries or museums can dramatically reduce the odds of developing depression in middle and old age, according to a new U.K. study by researchers at University College London.

The findings, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, show a clear link between the frequency of “cultural engagement” and the chances of a person over 50 developing depression. The study is the first to demonstrate that cultural activities not only help people manage and recover from depression but can also help to prevent it.

The researchers found that participants who attended films, plays or exhibitions every few months had a 32 percent lower risk of developing depression, while those attending once a month or more had a 48 percent lower risk.

The researchers hope to encourage greater awareness of the benefits so that people can take better control of their own mental health.

“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,” said lead author Dr. Daisy Fancourt.

“People engage with culture for the pure enjoyment of doing so, but we need to be raising awareness of their wider benefits too.”

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

Fancourt and her colleague Dr. Urszula Tymoszuk looked at data collected from people’s responses to questionnaires and in one-to-one interviews over the course of ten years. This included information about how often they visited the theater, concerts or the opera, the cinema, art galleries, exhibitions or museums.

The data also showed whether participants had been diagnosed with depression and when they had experienced symptoms.

Even after the findings were adjusted for differences in age, gender, health, wealth, education and exercise, the benefits of cultural activities remained clear. These 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 the gentle physical activity they encourage.

“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,” said Fancourt.

“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.”

“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,” she said.

Source: Cambridge University Press