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Do Artists and Musicians Live Longer Lives?

• January 14, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Painter on the Road to Tarascon, August 1888, Vincent van Gogh. (Photo: Public Domain)

Historical research from the Netherlands suggests they outlived other members of their socioeconomic class in past centuries.

Plenty of research has found health benefits to playing music and pursuing other artistic endeavors. But is the physical and emotional impact of such activity enough to lengthen people’s lives?

A new analysis from the Netherlands suggests that, at least for certain historical periods, the answer appears to be yes.

Writers and musicians born in the Low Countries—Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—between 1700 and 1850 had a life expectancy comparable to that of their society’s most elite strata, according to a research paper published in the online journal PLOS One.

For those born in the 18th century or first half of the 19th century, the life expectancy of musicians and writers who made it to age 50 was roughly in line with that of the upper class.

On average, they lived relatively long lives “despite belonging to the middle socioeconomic class, and (typically residing) in urban areas with poor living conditions,” writes a research team led by Frouke Engelaer of the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Aging.

This effect was not found among visual artists, perhaps because of toxic elements found in the paints of the era. But that group turned things around over the next half-century, with painters and sculptors born between 1850 and 1899 having a similar life expectancy to members of the elite class.

While somewhat inconsistent and subject to caveats, the findings are “in line with observed favorable effects of practicing arts on health in the short term,” the researchers write.

The researchers examined data on 12,159 “male acoustic, literary and visual artists” who were born between 1700 and 1899 in the Low Countries, which they describe as a region of Europe with a “rich tradition in artistic creativity.” They specifically compared life expectancy at age 50 for three groups: the socioeconomic elite, the middle class, and the artists.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, “most artists lived in urban areas where their audience and clients lived,” they write, adding that these cities had high mortality rates due to “poor sanitary conditions and epidemics of infectious diseases.” Artists in this period “usually descended from middle-class families” and had few opportunities for upward mobility: then as now, many musicians were forced to work second jobs to earn a living.

Nevertheless, for those born in the 18th century or first half of the 19th century, the life expectancy of musicians and writers who made it to age 50 was roughly in line with that of the upper class. This suggests—but does not prove—that the health benefits of creative activity may have been just as effective then as they are today. (Given the aforementioned infectious diseases, it’s particularly intriguing to note a 2002 study that found playing music strengthens the immune system.)

Granted, not all the evidence points in this direction. As noted earlier, the researchers found no such link for visual artists until later in their study, beginning with those born in 1850.

What’s more, at that same point the life-expectancy advantage disappears for writers and musicians, for reasons that are unclear. (One possibility: the researchers note that the rise of industrialization meant musical instruments were suddenly available for a much wider population, including those of lower economic status and, perhaps, poorer health.)

The researchers caution that they did not reach “any definite conclusions” on the effects of the arts on aging and physical health. But their results should inspire scholars in other countries to look for similar patterns. One thing we can say for certain is our thoughts and emotions impact our health, and few things stimulate the mind and heart more than creating art.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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