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WHO report on dementia

World Health Organisation report into evidence for the health benefits of the arts

In September 2019 the World Health Organisation published their report of a major review to address the question ‘what is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being?’.

The report, authored by Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn of University College London, took into consideration the results of over 3,700 studies investigating the arts and health.

A section on dementia specifically (pp 44–45) found good evidence for several health benefits of music:

Music, in particular, has been found to support cognition in people with dementia. […] A number of studies have found beneficial effects of listening to and making music for global cognition as well as for verbal fluency, visuospatial skills and speech. However, most consistent results have been found for autobiographical memory.

Many studies have found benefits of music and dance for reducing anxiety (including stress hormones) and also some evidence of their benefits for depression, particularly if individuals engage regularly over long periods of time (e.g. three months or more).

Active engagement with music and music listening have been found to reduce agitation (e.g. repetitive acts, wandering, restlessness and aggressive behaviours) and behavioural problems in people with dementia.

For people with dementia who have been hospitalized, music has been associated with a reduction in the average length of stay, an increase in discharges, a reduction in falls and a decrease in the need for antipsychotic drugs. For individuals with moderate and advanced dementia, music is associated with lower levels of congestive heart failure, lower inflammation levels and lower stress hormones.

The authors concluded:

‘This report raises a number of policy considerations for members of the WHO European Region to support the development of long-term policies or strategies that will provide more synergized collaboration between health and arts sectors that could realize the potential of the arts for improving global health.’

Specific suggestions included:

  • ‘supporting the implementation of arts interventions where a substantial evidence base exists
  • ‘considering the introduction, or strengthening, of lines of referral from health and social care to arts programmes, for example through the use of social prescribing schemes
  • ‘supporting the inclusion of arts and humanities education within the training of health-care professionals to improve their clinical, personal and communication skills