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beyond indulgence: how the arts make us healthy

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Dr Daisy Fancourt, Senior Research Associate and Wellcome Fellow at UCL.

I have an unusual job. I am a research scientist who looks at the impact of the arts. In my daily life, the creativity of culture collides with the rigour of statistics.

The idea that the arts are good for us might sound like a new ‘fashion’. But in fact there is a long history of the arts being used to support our health. In fact, the first pieces of art ever found, dated by archaeologists to around 40,000 years ago, appear to have been created for use in healing and fertility rituals. This relationship between the arts and our health can be traced across history, including in ancient medical traditions (consider Apollo, God of healing and music), in medieval monastic medical traditions (where religion and art were amongst the main healing tools), and in scientific treatises of the 18th century. But major biomedical advances in the 18th and 19th centuries tackling communicable diseases such as cholera, typhoid and plague eclipsed lots of research into wider areas of health. And it’s only in the last century, as our biggest health problems have transitioned from communicable to non-communicable diseases, that there has been renewed interest in factors such as exercise, diet, sleep, social support and community cultural engagement.

Engaging in the arts is really not that strange a thing to research in relation to health. The arts are what we call a ‘complex health intervention’. They combine many different factors that we know affect our health (such as reducing sedentary behaviours by getting people out of the house, building social support networks, providing cognitive stimulation and helping us to regulate our emotions). But they do so in an activity that many people actively want to get involved with, not for their health but for the pure joy of doing so. On a surface level, it’s not surprising that arts engagement is associated with better wellbeing in daily life, but I always think the most exciting research questions are those that go beyond what we instinctively can guess and provide us with answers that surprise us. So here are some of my favourite facts about the arts and our health, from projects I’ve worked on that you hopefully won’t have heard before.

I started my work in this fascinating area working at a microscopic level. In my PhD, I found that listening to music doesn’t just make us feel more relaxed, but actually alters levels of stress hormones. It also affects the activity of chemical messengers in our immune system involved in inflammation. Alongside this very detailed research, I gradually started ‘zooming out’, working on hospital clinical programmes such as the incorporation of recorded music into neonatal intensive care units (where it can help young babies to gain weight and leave hospital sooner), dance-physio classes for stroke patients (as dance music can improve gait during rehabilitation), and magic camps for children with cerebral palsy (as magic tricks are composed of the same exercises as hand physiotherapy to help children develop better hand function). In my first post-doctoral jobs, I also worked on community psychiatry programmes including a singing programme for mothers (which we found is more effective than usual treatment pathways in reducing postnatal depression) and a drumming programme for people with persistent moderate depression (which led to reductions in depression that were retained for months following the end of the programme).

Over the last year, I’ve zoomed out again to a population level. I’m now undertaking complex statistical modelling of national cohort studies which track thousands of people across their lifetimes. My big research question is: ‘does arts funding help to reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases in the UK?’ This is a multi-year project, but already the results are coming through clearly. Creative activities in primary schools reduce the risk of children developing social or behavioural problems in adolescence. Engaging with museums and galleries is a protective factor against developing dementia in older age, even when you take account of how wealthy and healthy people are to start with. Cultural activities such as going to the theatre or cinema reduce the risk of developing depression. Taking part in the arts is also as effective as exercise in reducing the risk of developing chronic pain in older age, and reduces the risk of developing a disability or becoming frail.

Fortunately, my work isn’t all statistical programming or (back in the good old PhD days) lab work. This research is very topical right now given the pressure on health and cultural budgets, so I work closely with public health bodies, arts councils and government in reporting the findings back. I also do lots of public engagement work (you can read my latest book here) and I hold a post with the BBC, making TV and radio programmes. My most recent work has been increasing public awareness around ‘arts on prescription’, whereby the NHS can refer people to arts programmes in the community to support for people with complex problems. (If you want to find out more you can watch a short BBC film I made recently).

We’re all aware of the importance of eating our 5-a-day and getting our 30 minutes of exercise. Nobody questions that these things support your health. From a research perspective, the arts have equally important effects on our health; people just don’t know about them as much. So next time you decide to visit a gallery or book tickets for a play or spend an afternoon lying in the garden listening to music, you can be safe in the knowledge that these things aren’t just indulges: they’re actually good for you too.

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