The first International Arts and Dementia Research Conference took place on 9-10 March 2017. Hosted by RSPH and supported by The Wellcome Trust, Lankelly Chase and Canterbury Christ Church University, this two-day conference brought 100 health experts from around the world to 28 Portland Place, London.

It saw almost 70 talks, presentations and discussions on topics ranging from the role of Gaelic and English bilingualism in relation to dementia care, to dementia patients taking on the role of composers and performers in music therapy sessions. The international origin of the delegates meant that discussion was informed from a wide range of perspectives from around the world, making for fascinating results. 

Paul Camic,Professor of Psychology and Public Health at Canterbury Christ Church University and Conference Chair, was joined by keynote speakers Professor Anne Bastings and Dr. Teppo Särkämö and plenary speaker Sebastian Crutch, UCL.

Paul said: "There are biological as well as psychological and social mechanisms which, if utilized by collaborating researchers and artists, could be instrumental in the development of dementia care.

"By thinking about the arts as part of our evolutionary development when working with people with dementia, we find a theoretical foundation that includes biological, psychological and social components. We’re also provided with the rationale that research involving the arts and science allows us to explore arts as a means for learning, creativity, stress reduction, wellbeing, cognitive and emotional stimulation, social interaction and behavioural conditioning.

"As we have seen at this conference, the arts, sciences and technology have vast potential in collaborating. Together, they can develop new research methodologies, assessment tools and interventions using, for example, eye tracking devices, physiological stress measurements and video analysis. This will help us to understand the challenges faced by those with different types of dementia, and to provide innovative tools and interventions using a range of art forms, to support those with dementia, family members and professional carers."

Professor Anne Bastings gave the first keynote talk on the first morning of the conference, “Then at last we arrived”: Arts, Ageing and Utopia. Professor Bastings is an artist and professor of theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She was named as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2016, one of the USA’s most distinguished awards in the arts and sciences. She also authored a number of books, including Forget Memory: Creating Better Lives for People with Dementia and The Penelope Project: An Arts-based Odyssey to Change Elder-care.

In her speech, Anne looked at Ionesco’s The Chairs and how the meaning of life is not the end destination, but the interactions shared between people. She also explored two decades of meaningful engagement between dementia and storytelling, movement, music, play-creation and playful gift exchanges, posing questions to the audience as to the substance and role of arts in dementia care. 

Dr. Teppo Särkämö opened the second morning of the conference with Music for the ageing brain: Cognitive, emotional and neural benefits of musical leisure activities in stroke and dementia. Dr Särkämö is a psychologist and researcher working at the Cognitive Brain Research Unit at the University of Helsinki. His research focuses on the neural mechanisms of music and speech processing, neuroplasticity, ageing, and music-based interventions for neurological illnesses.

In his talk, Teppo explored music as a promising tool in the rehabilitation of age-related neurological illnesses, looking at the findings of randomized controlled trials involving acute stroke patients and persons with dementia and their caregivers. The results of these trials showed that musical leisure activities can provide an effective and easily applicable way to enhance cognitive and emotional well-being after stroke and early dementia.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, said: “The incidence of dementia is increasing rapidly along with the aging populations around the world, and there are, as yet, no effective drug treatments to prevent or slow the disease progression. It is therefore critical that we have proven strategies and programmes that help to support those with dementia and their carers.

"The arts have been leading the way in dementia support and the conference has enabled us to share research from around the world. The speakers have made a real impact on our knowledge and understanding of how to help people with dementia; their work is a major contribution to society.”