Hill Strategies Research on Arts, Health, and Well-being

This issue of Hill Strategies' Arts Research Monitor focuses on the connections between the arts, health, and well-being, including a report on art and the health of Aboriginal Peoples, a presentation on the arts and well-being, a summary of international research into the long-term connections between the arts and health, as well as a study of the neurochemical impacts of music. 

Click the links below to read each report in its entirety.

Art and Wellness: The Importance of Art for Aboriginal Peoples’ Health and Healing

National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, 2012
Authors: Alice Muirhead and Sarah de Leeuw

This brief report highlights the fact that cultural practices are important for “the wellness, health, and healing of Aboriginal peoples and communities”. The report notes that many Aboriginal cultural practices are “simultaneously art, creative expression, religious practice, ritual models and markers of governance structures and territorial heritage, as well as maps of individual and community identity and lineage”. Some of these cultural practices include “feasting and gifting rituals, petroglyphing, body ornamentation, singing, dancing, drumming, weaving, basket making, and carving”.
The report provides a very brief summary of some research evidence related to the relationship between the arts and health:

  • There are strong links between a community’s cultural vitality and “the sociocultural, physical and mental health of individuals within those communities”, with potential factors including a sense of belonging, ownership, pride, engagement, and social capital.
  • Art may be a “protective factor that strengthens individuals and communities and acts as a buffer against ill health”.
  • Art therapy, in addition to helping people communicate or heal, may also be “something that can make healthy people healthier”. 

The report indicates that the arts may have particular importance for Aboriginal Peoples in many ways:

  • The arts can help with the healing of wounds related to “a long history of colonization and marginalization”, including residential schools.
  • When used as a means of communication in therapy settings, art can be “an effective way of bridging the divide between primarily non-Indigenous health care systems and providers, and Indigenous world-views and understandings of health”.
  • “Creative and cultural expression can promote community strength and resilience”, thereby helping to improve health.
  • “The revival, practice, and expansion or exploration of culture has a profound effect on identity formation and solidification, and in turn, health and well-being.”
  • The arts can help “reduce the marginalization often experienced by Aboriginal people when accessing health services.” 

Arts, Culture, Health, Well-being, and Social Connectedness
Presentation hosted by Arts Health Network Canada and CH-NET Works! (a project of the Canadian Health Human Resources Network at the University of Ottawa)

Hill Strategies Research Inc., May 2015
This presentation muses as to whether the arts could be a part of a “prescription for health”, in addition to a healthy diet, physical activity, proper health care, and good sleeping habits. The presentation provides a brief review of studies of arts engagement and well-being, and delves into the findings from the 2013 study The Arts and Individual Well-being in Canada.
The introduction to the presentation, conducted by Kira Tozer of the Arts Health Network Canada, explains the concept of the arts and health, defining it as “a growing international field that embraces many forms of art to promote health and prevent disease in individuals and communities, enhance health service delivery and enrich research inquiry”. The arts and health include issues such as the use of the arts in health care or in the education of health professionals, arts-based research in health, arts-based health communication, community arts and health promotion and prevention, as well as the connections between recreational arts activity and health. (The Arts Health Network Canada maintains a useful set of publications related to the arts and health in its Mendeley group.)
The core of the presentation, conducted by Kelly Hill, indicates that it would be impossible to cover the full breadth of studies on the arts and health in a brief timeframe. The brief review of studies included in the presentation highlights three broad-ranging reviews of the benefits of the arts (including health benefits), four studies of participatory arts engagement (often among older adults), as well as a summary report that highlights a number of longitudinal studies on arts engagement and health (a report summarized elsewhere in this issue of the Arts Research Monitor).
The report on The Arts and Individual Wellbeing in Canada was based on Statistics Canada’s 2010 General Social Survey, which included 7,502 respondents 15 years of age or older. The report was included in a previous issue of the Arts Research Monitor, and previously-reviewed details of the study are not reiterated here.
The presentation provides details of predictive models of three indicators of health and well-being (very good or excellent health, very strong satisfaction with life, and volunteer activity in the past year). The models sought to examine whether any of six “arts and culture activities have explanatory value in the models above and beyond demographic information”. The statistical models provide substantial evidence that there is indeed a connection between arts and culture activities and health and well-being: of 18 correlations between six arts and culture activities and the three indicators of health and well-being, there was a positive correlation in 16 cases.
The presentation recognizes that the predictive models have limitations, in that some potential factors in health, such as smoking or alcohol consumption, could not be accounted for in the models because these questions were not asked in the 2010 General Social Survey. Another limitation is that the study did not examine whether the frequency of participation had any effects on the indicators of well-being.
The presentation questions whether cultural participation always fosters or strengthens social ties, and recognizes that reverse causality may also be possible (i.e., instead of people having a higher quality of life because they participate in the arts, those who participate in the arts may be able to do so because they already have a higher quality of life).

Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship Between Arts Engagement and Health

Arts for Health (Manchester Metropolitan University), February 2015
Author: Dr. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt
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.

The neurochemistry of music

Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 17, Issue 4, p179–193, April 2013
Authors: Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel J. Levitin (McGill University)
Reviewing 400 research reports related to the neurochemistry of music, this article indicates that there is “promising, yet preliminary” evidence that music has positive effects on “(i) reward, motivation, and pleasure; (ii) stress and arousal; (iii) immunity; and (iv) social affiliation”.
For individuals, “music is among those lifestyle choices that may reduce stress, protect against disease, and manage pain.” “Music initiates brainstem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance, and muscle tension”. In clinical settings, music is used “to promote health and well-being …, such as for pain management, relaxation, psychotherapy, and personal growth”.
The researchers also indicate that there is research to support the finding that “music plays an important role in creating social bonds”. However, the researchers caution that studies have not isolated the effects of music itself from the potential effects of the social nature of music making and attendance. As they note, “it may turn out that the mechanism of action for music is not due to the music itself, but to embedded or ancillary factors, such as distraction, mood induction, locus of control, and perceptual-cognitive stimulation. If this is the case, music may be effective, but not uniquely so – other interventions (crossword puzzles, films, plays) may show equivalent effects if matched for embedded factors.”
The researchers raise a number of important questions for future research, including:

  • “Are some people more likely to experience positive effects of music than others?” If so, which people benefit more?
  • “What are the differential effects, if any, of playing vs listening to music?”
  • “What is the optimal role for skilled music therapists in the administration of musical interventions for health outcomes?”

To read more, visit hillstrategies.com/content/arts-health-and-well-being.

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