Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

van-gogh

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

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.