Arts can help treat, prevent illness: WHO

Learning the didgeridoo has health benefits, a new World Health Organisation report says.
Learning the didgeridoo has health benefits, a new World Health Organisation report says.

Didgeridoo lessons, singing toothbrushes, and calligraphy training can all benefit health, according to a new report.

The World Health Organisation looked at the ways in which the arts can help prevent ill-health and support the treatment of mental illness, non-communicable diseases and neurological disorders.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe looked at more than 900 publications, including reviews covering 3000 further studies, in English and Russian from January 2000 to May 2019.

They divided the arts into five categories: performing arts, visual arts, literature, culture, and online arts.

One highlighted study showed that didgeridoo lessons in Australia improved respiratory function in males, and in general helped improve asthma awareness and compliance with asthma management plans.

Singing toothbrushes designed to increase the quality of brushing have been shown to improve oral health in blind children in South India, the report said.

And 30 days of calligraphy training were shown to reduce stress and hyperarousal symptoms in children who survived the 2008 China earthquakes.

Other examples included waltzing, which was found to be as effective as aerobic exercise for improving functional capacity in patients with chronic heart failure.

Dance was found to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder build a healthy relationship with their body by helping them counter "body armouring", when the muscles tense due to stress, and reducing stiffness.

Dr Piroska Ostlin, WHO regional director for Europe, said: "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."

The authors agreed that the overall evidence base "shows a robust impact of the arts on both mental and physical health".

Some of the studies, they said, show comparable or stronger effects for arts interventions than for medication or exercise.

The studies also demonstrate economic benefits, with some arts interventions showing equivalent or greater cost-effectiveness to possible health interventions.

They say policy-makers should support the implementation of arts interventions where there is substantial evidence of benefits, such as the use of recorded music for patients prior to surgery, and arts for patients with dementia.

The report said there were many more studies on music, dance and visual arts compared with digital arts, festivals and carnivals.

Australian Associated Press