Is a Trip to the Movie Theater Going to Become a Treatment for Depression?

A new study conducted in the UK suggests you shouldn’t feel guilty about regularly making trips to the movie theater

For many, an afternoon or evening at the movies is a relaxing luxury we don’t often have time for. In the modern world, sitting anywhere for two consistent hours without distractions from the outside world or just being under a severe time crunch in the first place can be a rarity. Heck, some of us are so busy keeping up with life that turning off our phone, sitting in a dark theater, and being completely off the grid for that length of time just feels irresponsible.

A new study conducted in the UK suggests you shouldn’t feel guilty about regularly making trips to the movie theater, though. According to research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, consistent “cultural engagement” can be linked to lowering the risks of developing depression in old age. Observing more than 2,000 adults over 50 from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), they discovered that people going to the cinema at least once a month or more were 48 percent less likely to develop depression. That seems like an odd link, doesn’t it? Well, of those 2,000 adults, researchers noticed that participants engaging in those “cultural events” benefited from a 32 percent lower risk. 


Researchers took the data that applied to participants who were free from depression at the beginning of the study and “used logistic regression models to explore associations between frequency of cultural engagement" over a 10-year period — a healthy sample size and data period. 


“There was a dose-response relationship between frequency of cultural engagement and the risk of developing depression independent of sociodemographic, health-related and social confounders. This equated to a 32% lower risk of developing depression for people who attended every few months,” the study reported. “Cultural engagement appears to be an independent risk-reducing factor for the development of depression in older age.” 


“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,” says lead author Dr. Daisy Fancourt of University College London. According to Fancourt, that benefit to our mental health through cultural activities come from mental stimulation, social interaction, and creativity that is encouraged. “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.”


And it's also important to note that the study focused on the correlation between attending the cinema and depression in older people, not just the general population. According to the National Institute on Aging, depression should not be viewed as a natural part of the aging process. And one study earlier this year found older adults are most likely to feel satisfied with their lives. The data was analyzed and collected from a sample of 1,546 people from ages 21 to 99 in San Diego. Participants were asked about their about their physical, cognitive and mental health in both a phone interview and a long survey that was filled out. Questions covered topics like happy and satisfied with life participants were, as well as how depressed, anxious or stressed they were. People in their 20s and 30s reported having the highest levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as the lowest levels of happiness, satisfaction, and well-being. But while older people experience greater levels of deterioration in physical health, they were found to be the healthiest mentally and emotionally— more especially, the 60s are going to be the height of your mental and emotional well-being, according to this study. According to WebMD, late-life depression affects about 6 million people in the United States 65-years or older but only 10 percent of them receive professional help. And this is significant because there is a belief that the elderly display symptoms of depression differently than others, with many of their symptoms easily being confused with other illnesses and side effects of the medicines used to treat them. 


“There’s this idea that old age is bad, it’s all gloom and doom and older people are usually depressed, grumpy and unhappy,” says study author Dr. Dilip Jeste, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Center on Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego.


Other studies point out that modern life may legitimately be “easier” for older generations than any other time and easier than that of younger generations today. One study pointed out that depressive symptoms later in life had been on a steady decline between a 10-year span of 1998 to 2008. To further support that, more research also points to a growing rate of depression and anxiety in younger adults in recent decades. And it’s logical to expect that older adults are most likely to have the most free time for “cultural engagement activities” like going to the movies or visiting a museum in the first place, with the prime “busy years” of a career and raising a family in the rearview mirror. 


“It is conceivable that the changes in societal functioning because of progressive globalization, technology development, increased competition for higher education and for better-paying jobs and changing roles of women in the society are likely to impact young women and men more than they might affect older people,” Jeste adds. “Any relatively rapid changes tend to bring in stress for the people most affected.”


But while the findings through this study show a direct link between lowered risks of depression and the seemingly simple act of going to the movies, doctors aren’t exactly going to start prescribing trips to the theater as treatment. “This requires an approach based on the use of talking therapies, complemented by the use of medication where an older person doesn’t respond or when they have more severe depression,” says Dr. Amanda Thompsell, chair of the old age faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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