For most people, the link between the arts and health is a crooked line, but take a closer look and you can find many examples of the arts playing a role in health and wellbeing.
This idea, “Incorporating the Arts to Improve the Health and Wellbeing of Washington, D.C.” is what brought out community leaders and clinicians to the 6th Annual Rodham Institute Summit, May 23, 2019.
Throughout the years, the summit has addressed many of the topics that impact community health, including health equity and access to care, obesity, mental health, and support of youth in underserved communities.
“One of the reasons we decided to choose ‘Incorporating the Arts to Improve the Health and Wellbeing of Washington, D.C.,’ as the theme of this year’s summit is that the arts have really been the glue that binds our society together. The arts are really who we are as human beings,” explained Jehan “Gigi” El-Bayoumi, MD, RESD ’88, professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and founding director of the Rodham Institute.
This year’s event was held in the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center and live-streamed by online health resource publication BlackDoctor.org. More than a dozen members of local organizations kicked off the day-long summit, with each giving brief presentations or performances on how they are incorporating music, dance, art, and storytelling into their community health and engagement efforts.
The annual summit also served as the backdrop for a presentation of the Rodham Institute’s Beacon of Light award, given to change-makers in the community. This year’s award went to Cora Masters Barry, founder and CEO of the Recreation Wish List Committee, founder of the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, and former first lady of Washington, D.C.
“Where we’re sitting now, in this beautiful facility with all of these wonderful people, this is what an idea, and somebody who wants to make a difference, looks like,” El-Bayoumi said of Barry. “She saw a need, and was a persistent visionary. She used tennis as a hook to engage kids in education.”
“The Southeast Tennis and Learning Center is dedicated to changing the trajectory of the lives of the children it serves,” said Barry. “We use whatever we can to get them here. Tennis is the hook, but education is the key.” Since the center opened its doors in 2001, Barry added, thousands have benefitted from its athletic and academic resources, and more than 100 area children have gone on to earn full college scholarships.
“In many of those cases, I’m not sure the kids would have gone on to college at all.” “I am thrilled as I look at the program, you’ve had such a terrific lineup of people,” said the day’s featured guest, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “The fact that you’re holding this event at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center says so much about what the Rodham Institute stands for and what you are hoping to achieve. Cora started this with a firm belief that bringing services to the community would attract young people, and those services would help them to achieve their God-given potential. Last night and today I met some of those young people that have been influenced by this center, and I am thrilled.”
Clinton, in describing her own efforts to incorporate the arts into wellness programing, told El-Bayoumi about a program offered through the Clinton Foundation called Too Small to Fail, aimed at promoting early childhood interaction and its impact on development.
“We recommend talking, singing, and reading to infants, babies, and toddlers,” said Clinton. “There is research that shows that when a baby is being stimulated by someone talking, reading, or singing, the brain lights up. There is evidence that it helps to build neural connections; it literally helps to create a better foundation for learning.”
Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Kennedy Center), and Thomas Cheever, PhD, program director for Sound Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), presented the summit’s keynote. The pair described the partnership between the NIH and the Kennedy Center in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, which takes a scientific look at the impact of music on the brain, cognitive development, and health.
Rutter attributed the arrival in late 2015 of noted soprano Renée Fleming as a member of the artistic advisory team at the Kennedy Center to the rebirth of an outreach program between the Kennedy Center and NIH. Fleming, she recalled, was eager to find a more significant way to link music and the arts with health and wellness.
A chance encounter between Fleming and NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, which led to an impromptu performance by Fleming with Collins accompanying her on acoustic guitar, served to make that critical connection. Six months later, the collaboration began hosting workshops and webinars, and funding research into the effects of music on the intricate circuitry of the brain, as well as the therapeutic potential of music as therapy for neurological disorders.
One project, Cheever said, involved a young jazz musician, Matthew Whitaker, and Charles Limb, MD, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. Together they explored what happens in the brain under the influence of music. Whitaker underwent a functional MRI while first listening to an intentionally dull lecture as a baseline, then while listening to music he enjoyed, and finally while he played music. The study found that listening and playing music triggers vast areas of both hemispheres of the brain, rather than the smaller regions the lecture activated.
Cheever went on to describe another research project involving rhythmic auditory stimulation on Parkinson’s patients. Researchers, he said, have discovered that by listening to a steady metronome rhythm while walking, the tremors and halting gait common in the neurodegenerative disorder were reduced.
“It’s really a dynamic change from what is really a simple intervention. Rhythm is just one component of music. … This is just one example of the promise of using music as an additional way to treat diseases that we currently aren’t able to fully treat with conventional measures.”
The explanation for how music can have such a significant impact on the brain, Cheever said, might be found in the OPERA (Overlap, Precision, Emotion, Repetition, and Attention) hypothesis. “You might have heard of a term called neuroplasticity,” Cheever said, describing the phenomenon of the brain recognizing a need and adapting to it. The OPERA hypothesis suggests that, when all of the conditions are met, neural plasticity drives the brain to operate at a higher level.
“We know that circuits in the brain are disrupted in certain conditions, and we also know that music is a potent way to activate some of that neural circuitry.” He added that researchers are trying to explore whether stimulating the brain with music might have even greater therapeutic effects on some of these brain circuits. “Our brains are really capable of responding to music and creating it in amazing ways, and all of those reasons are why the NIH is so excited to be involved with this project.”
The link between the therapeutic use of arts programming — particularly the influence of music, visual arts therapy, movement-based programs, and creative writing and expression — and positive health outcomes well established, said El Bayoumi. She added, “The Rodham Institute seeks to expose and connect communities in Wards 7 and 8 to evidence-based programming and the great work happening in the arts in Southeast D.C. and across the city.”