SBB Spotlight: Jess Bone

"It’s important not just to rely on historic definitions of arts and culture so that our research actually reflects what people are doing in their everyday lives."

30 June 2023

This month we’re featuring our Research Fellow Dr Jess Bone. Jess is an epidemiologist specialising in arts, health, and wellbeing in population-level data. She is currently working on our EpiArts project using data from the US to explore how the arts are linked to health outcomes. In this feature, we spoke to Jess about her recent trip to Japan where she extended our research to different cultural settings. We also asked her views on the greatest barriers people encounter when accessing the arts.

Q: Where in Japan were you based and what were you working on? 

J: I was based at the National Centre for Geriatrics and Gerontology which is outside Nagoya in a city called Obu. I was working with Prof Tami Saito, Dr Taiji Noguchi in the Department of Social Science. The aim was to look at extending our EpiArts work with cross cultural comparisons. A lot of the previous epidemiological research on arts engagement and health focuses on Europe, particularly the UK. In EpiArts we’ve extended these findings to the US, but there’s still very little international work. Japan has a lot of rich data from cohort studies, such as JAGES, which includes a very large sample of older adults and has a variety of questions on arts and cultural engagement, which are comparable to data from the UK and the US. I wanted to draw comparisons between the UK, US, and Japan, looking at the predictors of arts and cultural engagement and the impact of that engagement on wellbeing. 

Q: What were the key differences and similarities that you found, was it what you expected? 

J: We’re currently writing up the paper looking at predictors of arts engagement. We explored a range of social and demographic factors across the US and Japan and found many similarities. This was surprising as we were expecting to find different predictors of arts engagement across countries, but it was fairly consistent. Interestingly, there was a clear difference in the role of neighborhood social cohesion. In Japan, higher cohesion was associated with increased engagement, but it was not in the US. We don’t yet have a definitive answer as to why this might be. However, one idea might be that in the US people are more likely to drive to arts activities whereas older adults in Japan, particularly older women, are more likely to stay within their own communities. In this study, we looked at both individual and group-based arts engagement, and in Japan a lot of these group activities happen at “Community Salons”. These Salons are like community centres, although I don’t think there’s a direct comparison in the US or UK.  

Q: Were the arts activities within these Community Salons similar to those in the UK/US? 

J: We harmonized the measures across the countries so we tried to include activities that we could compare across Japan and the US. Activities done at Community Salons included handicrafts, musical activities, calligraphy, and traditional Japanese poetry. Whilst the first two types of activity were like those done in the US (measured with a question on community arts group attendance), the latter two are probably pretty rare. We also included traditional Japanese cultural activities such as flower arranging and tea ceremonies, which older adults in the US and UK are far less likely to do!  

Q: What were people’s motivations for going to the community salons? Did they go for health-related purposes? 

J: I was lucky enough to go along to a couple of community salons and meet older adults there. Unfortunately, due to the language barrier, I couldn’t ask them their motivations for attending. However, I think people mainly go as a social activity. The Japanese government introduced new guidelines in 2015 to help fund these Community Salons with the aim of trying to reduce loneliness and social isolation, a key public health challenge with the large aging population in Japan.  

Q: What were the impacts of arts and cultural engagement in Japan? 

J: My second study from my time in Japan compares the impact of arts and cultural engagement on wellbeing in Japan and the UK. However, we really struggled to find measures of wellbeing in JAGES, as there is generally more stigma around mental health in Japan than in the UK. I think the UK has seen a large push to promote wellbeing in recent years, which hasn’t really happened in Japan. This makes cross-cultural work really challenging as it was difficult to find items that were comparable across the different studies. However, the preliminary findings from our study indicate that engaging in arts and cultural activities improves wellbeing in older adults in Japan and the US, particularly social wellbeing. 

Q: What is the biggest barrier people face in engaging with arts and culture? 

J: I think the most important thing we need to consider is the social gradient in arts and cultural engagement, so the social and economic factors. These are often ingrained from childhood, for example your parents’ level of education, family income, and childhood exposure to the arts. All of these factors are strongly related to whether people engage in the arts as adults. This is particularly important as these factors are also related to other health inequalities. What we need to think about is how we can make the arts and culture accessible to everyone regardless of their background. It’s not enough just to make these activities free as this doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to know about them or are able to get to them.  Social prescribing is one potential avenue, but we still have a lot of work to do here. 

It’s also important to think about how we define the arts and culture. For example, in some datasets the questions are very limited, asking only whether people go to the theatre or the opera. These very traditional forms of arts engagement aren’t accessible (or even appealing!) to everyone. If people are making up a dance at home or filming a TikTok they are still engaging in a creative activity, but we need to work out how to incorporate these practices into our definition of arts engagement. It’s important not just to rely on historic definitions of arts and culture so that our research actually reflects what people are doing in their everyday lives.  

Q: Now that the EpiArts report has been published, what is the next phase? 

J: We’re working on EpiArts Part 2. A lot of the initial work focused on mental health outcomes. Now we’re using the same datasets to try and extend that work into physical health outcomes, as well as looking at different populations, such as exploring whether findings from older adults can be replicated in younger people. We’re also focusing more on testing which mechanisms might link arts engagement to health outcomes. To do this, we’re using more advanced methods for causal inference, really making sure we’re accounting for the differences between people who do and don’t engage in the arts.  

Q: How did you get into the field of arts and health? 

J: I’ve always been interested in mental health, and I’m particularly interested in the social determinants of health. My PhD looked at the way young people think about their social relationships and whether that is related to the gender difference in depression in adolescents. Throughout most of life, depression is twice as common in women as it is in men, and this difference emerges in the teen years. This is tied to many different factors, but social factors are likely to be particularly important for adolescents. Before this I worked on a feasibility trial called the Community Navigators Study. It was essentially a social prescribing intervention for people with complex depression and anxiety. People worked with a Community Navigator, who had a very similar role to link workers now, to identify and attend community-based activities. This sparked my interest in the arts as a social asset that can be used to support health.   

Q: What was one of the highlights of your trip to Japan? 

J: We did this amazing cycle route near Hiroshima, called the Shimanami Kaido, that spans nine beautiful islands. They’ve built suspension bridges between the islands so the whole thing is an 80km route past amazing sandy beaches, and we were super lucky with the weather. I’d recommend it to anyone visiting Japan!

Jess is on Twitter and LinkedIn.