Daytime photo of the beach at Scarborough with a view of the gardens and castle above the bay.
South Bay with headland and Scarborough Castle. Heritage at Risk 2023. © Historic England Archive. DP372219.
South Bay with headland and Scarborough Castle. Heritage at Risk 2023. © Historic England Archive. DP372219.

How Heritage Can Improve the Lives of Older People

Part of the Heritage Counts series. 4 minute read. 

Alongside the wider cultural sector, heritage plays a significant role in supporting people to live a meaningful life in older age. This article looks at the role and benefits of heritage in supporting cognitive function, promoting wellbeing and reducing loneliness.

Heritage can help to support good mental and cognitive health in later life

Studies show that there is great potential for heritage to tackle cognitive diseases associated with older age. Some of this evidence is outlined below.

  • Analysis of data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing showed that for adults aged 50 and older visiting museums every few months or more was associated with a lower incidence rate of dementia over a 10 year follow-up period compared with less frequent visiting (Fancourt et al, 2018)
  • Engagement with cultural activities can reduce the risk of developing depression in older age, according to a longitudinal study. This is thought to be down to a range of factors including opportunities for social interaction, mental creativity, cognitive stimulation and physical activity (Fancourt and Tymoszuk, 2019)
  • Data gathered from over 15,000 UK respondents found that cultural engagement made the highest contribution to wellbeing in later life followed closely by physical activities and thinking skills (Green et al, 2017)

Heritage can support the wellbeing of people living with dementia

The relationship between heritage engagement and wellbeing in people living with dementia has been researched to some extent. In addition, research considers how people with dementia and their carers can be meaningfully involved in heritage in ways that support their wellbeing and quality of life.

  • A quasi-experimental study (N = 80) examining the wellbeing impact of handling museum artefacts found that people with early and moderate impairment showed positive increases in wellbeing. This was regardless of the type of dementia but those with early-stage dementia showed larger positive increases in wellbeing (Camic et al, 2017)
  • An evaluation of ‘Sensory Palaces’ (SP), a programme for people living with dementia and their care partners, concluded that heritage sites have the potential to promote wellbeing for these groups. Participants reported positively on the impact the sessions had for their individual wellbeing and their relationships with one another. The data suggests that the programme provided an enjoyable experience, opportunities to learn and connect with others and the historic surroundings themselves (Innes et al, 2021)
  • Day and Cohen (2000) argue for the importance of designing spaces for dementia patients that include historical and cultural references to support their wellbeing
Cultural heritage is an essential enduring aspect of self-identity for older adults, including those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Culture may serve as a therapeutic barrier or as a therapeutic resource in caring for this population.
Day et al, 2000

Places with a historical layout provide support environments for older adults

The way our built environment is designed and laid out has an important influence on our lives, particularly as people age. 

  • The design of historic places enables social interactions through the presence of informal gathering spaces. There is a link between the social infrastructure in a place and the prevalence of loneliness among older residents, according to analysis by Age UK of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) survey. (Age UK and ONS, 2019)
  • There is an association between aspects of the built environment and mobility in older adults (Rosso et al, 2011). Historic towns and cities tend to be compact and pedestrian oriented and can therefore play a vital role in encouraging walking. This is particularly important for older people: evidence shows that activity levels decline with age, the sharpest decline being at age 75+ (Sport England, 2022)

Taking part in heritage activities can reduce social isolation and loneliness in later life

Heritage has the potential to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness in later life by providing opportunities for people to volunteer their time. This is critical given that the number of over 50s suffering from loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6 (Age UK, 2018).

  • Research suggests that older people may benefit more from volunteering. This is likely down to the proven role of volunteering in increasing people’s social networks and sense of group identity, which are especially relevant to older people (Mak et al, 2022)
  • Older volunteers are crucial to the heritage sector. 64% of people who volunteered in the heritage sector in the last year (2021/22) were aged 50+, including 40% aged over 65 (DCMS, 2023). Therefore, the potential for heritage volunteering to reduce social isolation and loneliness in later life is significant

The following evidence specifically on heritage demonstrates this:

  • 76% of the respondents of a survey of volunteers reported that their contact with adults aged 45 to 64 had either ‘Increased’ or ‘significantly increased’ because of their participation in a National Lottery Heritage Fund-funded project (BOP Consulting, 2009)
  • Researchers assessing the benefits of participation to older people found that visits to museums, arts and heritage have the potential to reduce feelings of loneliness and reduce isolation among older adults by giving them opportunity to come together with others in spaces which spark conversation and contemplation. The Museums on Prescription project (2014 to 2017) consisted of 12 ten-week programmes of museums-based activities attended by 115 participants. The project used a social prescribing model to connect older people at risk of loneliness and isolation with local museums (Todd et al, 2017)


  1. Age UK (2018) ‘All the Lonely People: Loneliness in Later Life’. Available at: (Accessed: 24.08.23)
  2. Age UK and ONS (2019) ‘Loneliness (prediction of prevalence) score among over 65s’. Available at: . (Accessed: 23.08.23)
  3. BOP Consulting for NLHF (2009) ‘Assessment of the Social Impact of Participation in HLF-funded projects’. Available at: (Accessed: 24.08.23)
  4. Camic P, Hulbert S, Kimmel J (2017) ‘Museum object handling: A health-promoting community-based activity for dementia care’. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(6), pp.787-798. Available at: (Accessed: 24.08.23)
  5. Day, K. and Cohen, U., (2000) ‘The role of culture in designing environments for people with dementia: A study of Russian Jewish immigrants’. Environment and Behavior, 32(3), pp.361-399.
  6. DCMS (2023) ‘Volunteering in the heritage sector, 2021-22’. Available at:  (Accessed:
  7. Fancourt D. and Tymoszuk U. (2019) ‘Cultural engagement and incident depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing’. Br J Psychiatry;214(4):225-229. (Accessed: 24.08.23)
  8. Fancourt, D., Steptoe, A. and Cadar, D., (2018) ‘Cultural engagement and cognitive reserve: museum attendance and dementia incidence over a 10-year period’. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 213(5), pp.661-663.
  9. Green, M. et al (2017) ‘A summary of age UK’s index of wellbeing in later life. London: Age UK.’ Available at: (Accessed: 23.08.23)
  10. Innes, A. et al (2021) ‘You come because it is an interesting place: The impact of attending a heritage programme on the well-being of people living with dementia and their care partners’. Dementia. 20(6):2133-2151. (Accessed on: 22.08.23)
  11. Mak, Hei W., Rory Coulter, and Fancourt, D. (2022). ‘Relationships between Volunteering, Neighbourhood Deprivation and Mental Wellbeing across Four British Birth Cohorts: Evidence from 10 Years of the UK Household Longitudinal Study’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19, 3: 1531.
  12. Rosso, A.L. et al (2011) ‘The urban built environment and mobility in older adults: a comprehensive review’. Journal of aging research. Available at: (Accessed: 22.08.23)
  13. Sport England (2022) Active Lives Adult Survey November 2021-22 Report. Available at: (Accessed: 22.08.23)
  14. Todd, C., et al (2017) ‘Museum programs for socially isolated older adults: Understanding what works’. Health & Place. Available at: (Accessed: 24.08.23)