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WHO report links engagement with the arts to mental and physical health benefits

According to a new report from the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, engaging with the arts can be beneficial for both mental and physical health. The report, launched in Helsinki on 11 November 2019, analyses evidence from over 900 global publications and is the most comprehensive review of evidence on arts and health to date.

The report reviewed the health benefits (either through active or passive participation) in five broad categories of arts: performing arts (music, dance, singing, theatre, film); visual arts (crafts, design, painting, photography); literature (writing, reading, attending literary festivals); culture (going to museums, galleries, concerts, the theatre); and online arts (animations, digital arts, etc.).

The report covered arts activities that seek to promote health and prevent ill health, as well as managing and treating physical and mental ill health and supporting end-of-life care.

Key findings

Arts and health throughout life

From before birth to the end of life, the arts can positively influence health:

  • Young children whose parents read to them before bed have longer night-time sleep and improved concentration at school
  • Among adolescents living in urban areas, drama-based peer education can support responsible decision-making, enhance well-being and reduce exposure to violence
  • Later in life, music can support cognition in people with dementia – singing in particular has been found to improve attention, episodic memory and executive function

Arts in health care

In health care settings, arts activities can be used to supplement or enhance treatment protocols:

  • Listening to music or making art have been found to reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, including drowsiness, lack of appetite, shortness of breath and nausea
  • Arts activities in emergency settings, including music, crafts and clowning, have been found to reduce anxiety, pain and blood pressure, particularly for children but also for their parents
  • Dance has been found repeatedly to provide clinically meaningful improvements in motor scores for people with Parkinson’s disease

The report highlights that some arts interventions not only produce good results, but can also be more cost-effective than more standard biomedical treatments. They can combine multiple health-promoting factors at once (such as physical activity and mental health support) and have a low risk of negative outcomes.

Because arts interventions can be tailored to have relevance for people from different cultural backgrounds, they can also offer a route to engage minority or hard-to-reach groups. Several countries are now looking to arts and social prescribing schemes, whereby primary-care doctors can refer their patients to arts activities.

Dr Piroska Östlin, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said:

‘Bringing art into people’s lives through activities including dancing, singing, and going to museums and concerts offers an added dimension to how we can improve physical and mental health. The examples cited in this groundbreaking WHO report show ways in which the arts can tackle ‘wicked’ or complex health challenges such as diabetes, obesity and mental ill health. They consider health and well-being in a broader societal and community context, and offer solutions that common medical practice has so far been unable to address effectively.’

View the full report below