Anita Walker betting culture is good for your health

With a portion of the state’s casino revenues, the Massachusetts Cultural Council is testing whether arts and culture can be prescribed just like medicine.

The organization is running three pilot projects where health providers, counselors, and social workers prescribe cultural activities for those with whom they work. The goal is to see whether going to the zoo, visiting a museum, or attending the symphony can have beneficial health impacts.

Anita Walker, the executive director of the Cultural Council, is convinced the experiment will work, in part because the health benefits of cultural activities have been documented in a number of studies. She’s using a portion of the revenues her agency receives from casino gambling to pay the cost of the pilot project prescriptions, but in the long run she hopes health insurers will come to see the health benefits of arts and culture and pick up the tab themselves.

“Maybe we can find a way to convince insurance companies that this is a good investment because it will save money,” Walker said on The Codcast from CommonWealth magazine. “You know insurance companies will pay for your gym membership. Insurance companies will give you a benefit if you don’t smoke. If they can see the benefit of cultural participation as a protective factor and a prevention against much more expensive consequences, maybe we can find another resource stream for our organizations.”

Walker says one of the chief benefits of arts and cultural activities is a feeling of participating in something bigger than oneself. “You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness, which leads to depression and even serious, serious physical health conditions like heart disease. I read recently that social isolation and loneliness have the same impact on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Walker said.