On September 7, 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published Staying Engaged: Health Patterns of Older Americans Who Engage in the Arts, the first detailed look at arts participation habits, attitudes toward the arts, and related health characteristics of adults aged 55 and older. The report is based on results from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), conducted by the University of Michigan with primary support from the National Institute on Aging within the National Institutes of Health.

“Previous studies have found a better health profile for older adults who participate in the arts, compared with those who do not, but much of that research is limited to the study of creating art, or taking part in arts classes or lessons,” said NEA Research & Analysis Director Sunil Iyengar. “This report, by contrast, looks at older adults who either create art or attend arts events, do both, or do neither, and health differences across these groups. The findings, while purely descriptive, will help future researchers to probe the arts-health relationship further.”

Staying Engaged: Health Patterns of Older Americans Who Engage in the Arts

This report describes arts participation patterns of older adults (aged 55 and over) tracked by the 2014 Health and Retirement Study. The nationally representative sample is also analyzed for its attitudes toward the arts. Central to the report, however, is an examination of the health characteristics (cognitive ability, physical function, and hypertension rates) among adults who created art, who attended arts events, or who did both or did neither.

Key sections and selected findings

  • Arts participation: The report examined creating art, attending arts events, doing both, and doing neither, among adults over 55 years of age.
    • 84 percent of these adults reported either creating art or attending arts events.
    • Among this group, 64 percent created art of their own, 68.7 percent attended arts events, and 48.6 percent both created and attended.
  • Attitudes about the arts were measured through eight questions including:
    • The arts are important (63.8 percent)
    • The arts help me to be active and engaged (54.9 percent)
  • Health outcomes
    • Older adults who both created art and attended arts events reported higher cognitive functioning and lower rates of both hypertension and limitations to their physical functioning than did adults who neither created nor attended art.
    • Among those who both created and attended, cognitive functioning scores were seven-fold higher than for adults who did neither type of arts activity.

Banner image: A resident at Adult Day Center in Waterford, Connecticut, displays her own hand-made puppet during the nonprofit Yorick’s Productions tour of 20 senior centers in the northeast region. Photo by Dusan Petran.