Participation in the Arts Tied to Better Health

Most older adults associate creativity with their youth and only passively engage in it. However, it may be time to rekindle your artistic energy, even if you only dabbled in painting, dance, theater or storytelling in the past. Research has found that participating in the arts can keep your body healthier, your mind sharper and improve your mood, among other positive health benefits.

Participation in the Arts Tied to Better Health
Victori Bilsborough

George Shannon, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California’s Regenerative Life Science Research Lab, feels it’s important for adults to be creative when they’re older “because it rekindles the creative fire they had when they were younger,” he says.

And a national study conducted by gerontologist Gene Cohen shows just how dramatic the results can be. Co-sponsored by the National Institute on Mental Health and National Endowment for the Arts, the Creativity and Aging Study exposed participants aged 65 to 100 to a wide range of art and cultural disciplines. These included painting, pottery, dance, music, poetry, drama, material culture and oral histories in a creative context. A year later, participants showed improved health, including fewer doctor’s visits, falls and prescription medicines, as well as better morale and lower depression than those in the control group.

“These community-based cultural programs for adults appear to be reducing risk factors that drive the need for long-term care,” Dr. Cohen writes. Interestingly, adds Dr. Shannon, the benefits of these creative activities “come out just about equal to medical care in terms of outcome.”

Artistic Endeavors Awaken the Brain

Creativity taps into the brain’s own inherent neuroplasticity — its ability to regenerate neural connections that have lain dormant and unused over time. The arts activate parts of the brain that might otherwise gradually decline without use as we age. “If you sit around and vegetate or watch television without doing other things, it’ll just aggravate those connections,” says Dr. Shannon. Instead, he urges older adults to stay active and committed to some kind of creative activity.

Creative pursuits not only awaken our brain but can also lead us to be more creative in our later years. Erica Hornthal, a psychotherapist and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy says, “the prefrontal cortex thins as we age and . . . that gives way to lowered inhibitions. That can lead to greater creativity; we’re not as worried about what people will think of us.”

Art Engages the Body

Even the simplest kind of art, such as drawing with a crayon, engages the body. But the more physically engaged an older adult is, such as in dance, tai chi or yoga, the better.

Hornthal initially began her dance therapy company to help dementia patients retain cognitive functions, but soon people of all ages were calling her. “Just because you didn’t dance before doesn’t mean in your 60s, 70s or 80s that you won’t turn a corner and enjoy it now,” she says.

After all, the body remembers things the brain doesn’t have immediate access to. Dance therapy, much like music therapy, “can circumvent some of those pathways that have changed or died, when some parts of the brain aren’t being activated,” she says. She’s seen significant changes in mood and well-being among her clients, as well as regained speech and eye contact among her non-verbal dementia patients. “Movement might lead to a metaphor. I’ve done groups where I will ask them to consider their arms and fingers as paintbrushes and paint the canvas in front of them. Amazing scenery plays out,” she says.

Dr. Shannon says it does not matter the type of art you engage with, only that you do something. “You have to take an active place in life and push yourself into situations where you can’t just sit back and watch.”

About the Writer

Jordan Rosenfeld

Jordan has written for The Atlantic, GOOD, mental_floss, New York Magazine, The New York Times, Quartz, Scientific American and many more. She is author of three novels and five books on the craft of writing.

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