WHO emphasises how the arts can improve health

WHO emphasises how the arts can improve health
© iStock/vgajic

Can we dance our way to better health? For the first time, there has been a comprehensive review of the connections between art and health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe has concluded that engaging with the arts can arts can improve health – both mental and physical – making policy considerations for countries to include the arts in healthcare programmes.

The WHO analysed evidence from over 900 global publications – the most comprehensive review of evidence on arts and health to date.

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 wellbeing in a broader societal and community context, and offer solutions that common medical practice has so far been unable to address effectively.”

The report reviews arts activities that seek to promote health and prevent ill health, as well as activities that manage and treat physical and mental ill health and support end-of-life care.

Arts and health throughout life

The report shows that from before birth to the end of life, the arts can improve health.

For example, 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 wellbeing and reduce exposure to violence.

Also, in later 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 healthcare

In healthcare settings, arts activities can be used to supplement or enhance treatment protocols. For example:

• 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; and

• 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.

Policy considerations

The report outlines policy considerations for decision-makers in the health sector and beyond, such as:

• ensure the availability and accessibility of arts-for-health programmes within communities;

• support arts and cultural organisations in making health and wellbeing part of their work;

• promote public awareness of the potential health benefits of arts engagement;
• include arts in the training of healthcare professionals;

• introduce or strengthen referral mechanisms from health- or social-care facilities to arts programmes or activities; and

• invest in more research, particularly in scaling up arts and health interventions, and evaluating their implementation.

Several countries are now looking to arts and social prescribing schemes, whereby primary-care doctors can refer their patients to arts activities.

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