Arts improve health and wellbeing but where’s the evidence?

Daisy Fancourt

Arts and cultural engagement is linked with positive health and wellbeing outcomes. A scoping World Health Organisation report analyses data from over 3000 studies.

In 2018 and 2019, Daisy Fancourt worked with the World Health Organisation on a report examining the links between arts and cultural engagement and health outcomes. Fancourt reviewed the findings from over 3000 studies, unearthing an incredible amount of evidence on how the arts affect wellbeing.

Involvement in arts was associated with the prevention and management of illness at every stage of our lives.

In early years, Fancourt found the arts help with the management of premature birth and infants who listen to music are likely to gain weight faster and leave hospital sooner.

The arts can help with speech and language development, and play a role in supporting children’s education. Fancourt also found arts engagement throughout childhood and and into adulthood is associated with better mental health.

In adolescence and adulthood, people who engage in the arts are more likely to engage in other health promoting behaviours (such as eating fruits and vegetables), and less likely to engage in risky behaviours (such as risky sexual behaviours or alcohol and drug use).

As people age, Fancourt started to see associations with healthy ageing. She explains engaging in activities like dance, for example, is associated with better bone strength. There are also so many associations between the arts and better cognitive functioning that slower rates of cognitive decline have been proposed.

Beyond individual benefits, the arts play an important role within society in terms of supporting social bonding, reducing loneliness and helping with social cohesion, with further evidence found about how the arts can help reconcile conflict between different groups.

Artists and arts industry professional are often aware of the benefits of arts engagement but it can be challenging to make the case for the culture or find support outside the creative sector. Fortunately Fancourt explains:

“There are scientists available out there who are happy to support with this kind of work and there are also lots of arts and cultural organisations with a huge amount of expertise and there are many networks across different countries that can be tapped into.”

As health services and arts organisations across the world struggle with the on-going impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps greater investment in cross-sector collaborations could provide a path forward for both fields.

Listen to the Special Edition’s Extended interview with Daisy Fancourt here.

Download the WHO report here.