Museums for Memory: How Cultural Engagement Affects Brain Health

Is going to a museum, theater performance, or cinema good for our brains? A recent study aimed to answer this question.

Previous research has suggested that activities we do in our free time, such as reading, gardening, or playing an instrument, can help to slow cognitive decline. The focus of this study, however, was on the impact of receptive cultural engagement, such as going to a museum, theater, or cinema.

The investigators examined data from 3,445 older adults who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing over 10 years. They were interested in how visiting a museum or art gallery, attending a theater, concert, or opera, and going to the cinema affects cognitive function.

Results indicated that visiting an art gallery or museum one or more times a year was associated with less decline in memory and semantic fluency (the ability to make associations) over 10 years, while greater frequency of attending a theater, concert, or opera was related to less decline in memory and semantic fluency. The effect of going to the cinema was less clear. Although going every few months appeared to have a beneficial effect on memory, going more or less often was not beneficial.

The investigators were also interested in how demographic, health, and social activity factors influenced the results. As it turned out, these factors were indeed related to cognitive function, but this relationship did not fully explain the associations between engagement in cultural activities and cognitive function—meaning the above results held true. Interestingly, regardless of whether participants experienced high or low levels of cognitive decline in Year 1, cultural engagement was still beneficial for memory and semantic fluency.

While going to the movies did not appear to have much impact on cognitive health, visiting a museum or art gallery, and attending a theater, concert, or opera were related to better cognition. The investigators suggested that engaging in these activities can enhance cognitive reserve or that these activities are a form of intellectual stimulation that helps keep the brain active and healthy. While there may be other factors to consider, overall cultural engagement seems to be good for the brain.



Fancourt D and Steptoe A. Cultural engagement predicts changes in cognitive function in older adults over a 10 year period: findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Scientific Reports (2018); 8(1): 10226.

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