Engaging in artistic activities such as singing and dancing from a young age can reduce social inequalities and encourage healthy behaviours, according to a new report from UCL and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The study, published today, is the world's largest review to date into the health benefits of the arts. The paper reviews over 3,000 studies and highlights the importance of involving the arts sector in health delivery and health policy for all countries in the WHO European region.
Lead author, Dr Daisy Fancourt (Associate Professor of Psychobiology & Epidemiology, UCL Epidemiology and Health Care) said: "Much of the research in this area has focused on the role of the arts in the treatment of illness.
"This report also highlights that engagement with the arts can affect social determinants of health, improving social cohesion and reducing social inequalities and inequities. Crucially, the arts can support the prevention of illness and promotion of good health."
In terms of treating ill-health the arts have been found to reduce psychological and biological markers of stress and improve immune response. For people with neurodevelopmental and neurological disorders and non-communicable diseases (including cancer, respiratory disease and cardiovascular conditions) engaging with the arts has been found to improve mental health and physical function.
The report also focusses on how the arts can improve engagement with primary healthcare. For example, doctor's surgeries that have visual art on walls have been found to reduce patient anxiety and calming music in dental surgeries can help anxiety, blood pressure and stress hormones.
"As well as helping patients or those with health problems to recover or better manage their illness, we see engagement with the arts having a significant positive health benefit from a young age.
"The arts have an important role to play in early years as well as throughout our life-course. In this study, we see many examples of programmes which have specifically helped more vulnerable children to manage anxiety and aggression as well as increased school attendance and self-esteem.
"Additionally large-scale community-based music programmes amongst children exposed to violence have been found to improve self-control and reduce behavioural difficulties," added Dr Fancourt.
The researchers says the report leads to a number of policy recommendations for the WHO and member states. These include ensuring arts provision in communities is accessible and supporting arts organisations in making health and wellbeing part of their strategies.
Dr Piroska Östlin, WHO Regional Director for Europe (ad interim), 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."
Case study: Arts on Prescription, England
Arts on Prescription has been used for around two decades in the UK as part of broader Social Prescribing schemes, such as the UCL-led Museums on Prescription initiative. People who visit their GP with non-medical problems such as social isolation or loneliness can be referred to the programme and connected with community activities such as arts participation. Evaluations have shown benefits for mental health, chronic pain, management of complex and long-term conditions, social support, and wellbeing, as well as an average return on investment of £2.30 for every £1 spent through reducing unnecessary prescribing and health services.
Case study: Men's Sheds, Scotland
Men's Sheds are community-based places designed to connect men within their communities, through activities such as woodwork (primarily) and sometimes also gardening, pottery, photography, art and other social activities. Originating in Australia, there are now over 1,500 Men's Sheds worldwide. Research on the sheds has shown benefits including skills acquisition, social belonging, enhanced wellbeing, increased self-esteem, a greater sense of self-worth and cognitive stimulation, as well as a roughly ten-fold social return on investment.
Study example: Regular trips out guard against depression in old age
A 2018 study led by Dr Fancourt, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found people who attended films, plays or exhibitions every few months had a 32% lower risk of developing depression, with those attending once a month or more having a 48% lower risk. She also led another study in 2018 finding a link between museum visits and reduced incidence of dementia after 10 years.
Study example: Singing improves mental health for family cancer carers
A 2019 BMJ Open study led by Dr Fancourt among people who were caring for a spouse, family member or close friend with cancer, found that weekly participation in a choir reduced anxiety and improved wellbeing.