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Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship Between Arts Engagement and Health

June 18, 201518 June 2015

Arts, health, and well-being

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Fifteen reports on “how engagement in the arts – as an audience member and/or practitioner – affects our physical and psychological health over time” are examined in this detailed review article, which concludes that “engagement in the arts is generally shown to have a positive impact upon the body’s physiology, in turn improving health and quality of life”. Of the 15 research reports, nine are Swedish, four are Finnish, one is Norwegian, and one is British.

Among the findings of the 15 reports:

  • There is a potentially beneficial connection between cultural attendance and longevity: the least frequent cultural attendees were found to have “a 60% higher risk of death”.
  • In urban areas, “rare attendees at cultural events had higher cancer-related mortality than frequent attendees”.
  • Frequent cultural attendees (and those who had increased their cultural attendance) reported better health than other respondents. However, “music-making and reading did not have any significant effect upon self-reported health.”
  • People who participate in creative activities (such as painting and drawing) and those who attend cultural events have a lower risk of dementia.

Some potential mechanisms connecting arts participation with improved health include social capital, cognitive effects (possibly with a neural basis), environmental enrichment through cultural activities, and recovery from work-related stress.

The literature review identifies some weaknesses in the research, including occasionally generalized groupings of cultural activities (rather than identification of specific forms of cultural engagement), varied definitions of arts engagement (passive, attendance-based vs. active creation, as well as individual vs. social participation), and the possibility of reverse causality (i.e., “the possibility that health has an impact on arts participation, rather than the other way around”). Although few studies showed any negative results, the report identifies “potentially detrimental effects of arts participation”, such as losing touch with reality and asocial behaviour.

The report concludes by assessing the possibility of using or developing certain United Kingdom surveys and datasets in order to examine the long-term connections between the arts and health.

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