Want to live a little longer?
Or remain mentally sharp as you hit your 70s, 80s, and even 90s?
Perhaps you should paint some landscapes.
Or maybe take up playing the piano.
Turns out being creative might make your golden years more enjoyable.
Carol Cummings, the senior director of Optimum Life Engagement and Innovation at Brookdale Senior Living, makes this case in a recent blog.
She says the human brain is designed to grow and change throughout a person’s life.
In fact, she says, your creativity may get better with age.
It also may help you ward off disease and cognitive decline.
And there’s some science to back up this assertion.
Creativity and aging study
In 2006, The Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at The George Washington University (GW) released a report called “The Creativity and Aging Study.”
The two-year study had six prominent sponsors. The lead sponsor was the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
The study was designed to evaluate what effects participation in cultural, artistic activities has on the general health, mental health, and social lives of older adults.
Activities consisted of, among other things, painting, dance, drama, poetry, and music.
A total of 300 persons took part in the study, 100 in each of three different locations: Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, and San Francisco.
In each region, one-half of the participants were placed in a control group.
The other half, the intervention group, actively participated in various creative activities provided and overseen by professional artists.
About 70 percent of the subjects were Caucasian. The others were members of ethnic or racial minority groups.
Subjects had an average age of 80 years. Overall, ages ranged between 65 and 103 years.
In order to provide a baseline measurement, each person began with a face-to-face interview during which they filled out multiple questionnaires.
Participants also filled out questionnaires at the end of both the first and second years of the study.
In every category, analysis of the study results found that those in the intervention groups exhibited positive outcomes relative to those in the control groups.
The findings looked at overall health, number of doctor visits, over-the-counter medication use, falls, morale, depression, and loneliness.
The study authors note among their conclusions, “In that [these results] also show stabilization and actual increase in community-based activities in general among those in the cultural programs, they reveal a positive impact on maintaining independence and on reducing dependency.”
The power of your mental muscle
Healthline spoke about the study with Dr. Joe Verghese, MBBS, MS, director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for the Aging Brain at the Montefiore Health System in New York.
Verghese discussed the importance of something called cognitive reserve.
“Cognitive reserve is a concept that is kind of akin to mental muscle. The more you exercise your brain, you build new connections, [and] you build new networks,” said Verghese.
“So when aging hits your brain,” continued Verghese, “then you’re able to ward off symptoms of these diseases for a longer period of time. Engaging in these types of activities helps you do it.”
Genevieve Saenz, MA, LMFT-A, long-term expressive arts therapist who has for many years worked with AGE of Central Texas, spoke with Healthline about the beneficial effects of creativity on aging.
Saenz said, “I look at creativity in general, not just visual art, but anything from gardening, to dancing, to going to the ballet, to creating a piece of art, to listening to music. Those are my therapeutic tools.”
Those tools provide, “an awakening of the human potential for creativity,” said Saenz.
But Saenz cautions that the elderly face a real problem within our society.
Importance of reducing senior isolation
“In the culture that we live in, there’s a cultural norm of isolation and uselessness that is placed on people,” said Saenz. “And people reach that age and all of a sudden society sees them as less than people anymore.”
“We don’t respect our elders in this culture. And that has a psychological, and I believe, a physical effect on people because of that projection from the culture,” she added. “Well, what do you do with that? Right? Who am I now? So there’s this identity crisis that comes along with the change in life?”
That’s why, continued Saenz, “Getting people out of isolation is just so important.”
Verghese echoed similar sentiments.
“A lot of [older] people, they do live alone, they have limited social contact, and limited social interaction,” he said. “So by getting them to engage in activities, especially in activities where you have to do it as a group, you automatically increase the social engagement, and that has been associated with less depression and a better sense of well-being.”
Ideas for reconnecting
Verghese acknowledges that outside of cities, it may be hard for some older adults to travel outside the home in order to partake in social activities.
So he offers some alternatives.
“There are other organizations that provide cognitively stimulating activities through telephones,” said Verghese. “There’s an organization called DOROT [dorotusa.org] which has the University Without Walls where they do a mixture of group discussion, lectures, [and more,] all available through the telephone.”
“All you need to do is call in and you’re either part of a group or you’re listening to a speaker talking about a particular topic,” said Verghese.
“There are audiobooks, and then... the other area, of course, is the internet and computers,” continued Verghese.
Saenz remarked that, “There are excellent resources on the internet about art. There are courses you can take online. And those courses may not seem accessible to the elderly, and yes, there’s a learning curve, but it can be bridged.”
“I think the main thing that invites creativity into your life is taking risks,” said Saenz. “Even taking a risk is a creative act. You’re doing something. You’re imagining. You’re thinking about something. You’re thinking outside the experience you’re in and wondering what a new experience could be.”
“And that,” said Saenz, “is creativity.”
Express yourself through your art
“One of the things the arts can do, that other community-based things can’t, is that it also facilitates expression for elders,” said Saenz.
“So, when you’re working with the arts, or you’re working with creativity, you have an opportunity to share your knowledge, to share your story, to do some transmission of all the things that have happened to you in your life, and to express yourself and be authentic,” said Saenz. “And that is empowering and so healthy for anyone at any age.”
“People are always saying, ‘Listen to your inner child. What does your inner child need?’” said Saenz.
Saenz believes that’s only one of the questions we should ask ourselves.
“What does your inner elder need?,” she explained. “What do they say? Because they have a lot of wisdom too.”
Healthline asked Saenz if she could choose one thing that she believes differentiates those who age well from those who struggle.
Saenz replied, “The people who seem to embrace aging and not be afraid of it, seem to be the people who age best.”