Healthspan Happenings: Movies as Medicine, Measuring Age, and Drinking to a Longer Life

movies as medicine

Welcome back to Healthspan Happenings, our weekly rundown of what’s going on in the world of longevity research and the science of aging. This week, we’re talking about a night at the movies, measuring your aging health with DNA, and drinking your way to a longer life.


If you’re tired of soothing your depression with Netflix…


Head to the movies. Movie theaters, musical productions, and other cultural events can help you fight depression as you age, suggests a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The more often you attend these events, the less depressed you’ll feel.

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) enlisted about 2,000 participants over the age of 50. They tracked their cultural engagement and depression risk for a decade and discovered a shocking trend: if older adults attended cultural activities such as movies, concerts, and museums once every few months, then their depression risk decreased by 32 percent. If they attended at least once a month, their risk dropped another 16 percent—meaning that those participants experienced a staggering 48 percent reduction in depression risk.

Attending cultural events comes with beneficial side effects:

  • They get us out of the house, promoting gentle physical activity and reducing sedentary behaviors.
  • They encourage social engagement. When we go out, we usually go out with people. This can reduce loneliness and social isolation.
  • Engaging with the arts like sculptures, paintings, and poetry readings has been shown to reduce stress and the stress hormone cortisol.
  • The arts, like any good puzzle, stimulate critical thinking, which can enhance mental health.

Taking part in cultural activities could improve not only our risks of depression but also our entire process of aging. Lead author Daisy Fancourt suggests, “So in the same way we have a ‘five-a-day’ [recommendation] for fruit and vegetable consumption, regular engagement in arts and cultural activities could be planned into our lives to support healthy aging.”


If you’re wondering what your health might look like when you’re older…


Check your cell-free DNA. Cell-free DNA (or cfDNA) within blood has been found to reflect differences in the age and health of individuals in a small study, as published in the journal Aging Cell. Healthy people over the age of 100 had more cfDNA similarities with people in their 20s than with people in their 70s. Could healthy aging result from epigenetic characteristics?

Cell-free DNA refers to all of the free-floating DNA in your blood stream. Most of the time, DNA stays inside the core of the cell—known as the nucleus—and is made up of smaller pieces called nucleotides. However, sometimes fragments of DNA enter the blood stream when the cell dies. These pieces of DNA are cfDNA.

The researchers in this study took samples from 12 participants. They then categorized them into 4 groups: those in their 20s, those in their 70s, healthy people over 100, and unhealthy people over 100. They discovered that the nucleotide spacing varied—for the most part—across these age groups. Nucleotides for people in their 20s were evenly spaced, but this changed with age.  Unhealthy people over the age of 100 had the least regular spacing.

Strangely enough, nucleotide spacing was similar for people in their 20s and healthy people over 100. The researchers don’t know why just yet. But it does suggest that healthy aging connects with epigenetic characteristics associated with youth. This is just more evidence to suggest that longevity relies more on lifestyle decisions than heritability.


If you like your morning coffee and late-night drinks…


You could be in for a longer life. Now, a lot of conflicting reports circulate around the effects of drinking coffee and alcohol. And many of them debate whether they have a positive or negative effect on health and longevity. Studies of 90-year-olds found that people who drink either or both in moderation tend to live longer than those who never drink either.

Researchers at the University of California Irvine found that an overwhelming number of people who reached 90 years old told their clinicians that they drank coffee and alcohol. Unfortunately, we don’t actually know how or why this correlation exists. In fact, many studies claim that caffeine and alcohol have neutral or negative health repercussions. What we do know though is that moderation is key. Excessive drinking of either substance usually leads to poor health outcomes.

Future studies about the effect of coffee and alcohol consumption on longevity might benefit from a more sociocultural outlook. Maybe coffee and alcohol function similarly to movies and theaters. We meditate or converse over a cup of coffee. We meet friends for a night out on the town. Perhaps investigating where and with whom we drink could shed more insight on the issue than simply asking how much.