Creativity May Help Aging Brains
Creativity May Help Aging Brains
May 6, 2004
WASHINGTON - Its an odd medical meeting that
features Rodgers & Hammerstein and brilliantly
colored paintings rather than, say, X-rays. What does
belting out "Oklahoma" or putting oil to
canvas have to do with brain health?
Perhaps a lot, when the singers are active 70- and
80-year-olds and the painters are in the throes of
dementia. Creativity, some scientists say, may play
an important role in healthy aging - conversely, the
ill can shed extraordinary light on just how the brain
"Even though our brains age, it doesnt
diminish our ability to create," says Dr. Bruce
Miller, a behavioral neurologist at the University
of California, San Francisco.
The big question, as arts projects become more common
in retirement and nursing homes, is whether tapping
elders creativity truly brings them physical
health benefits as well as joy. And if so, what works
The National Institute on Aging and Society for the
Arts in Healthcare brought scientists and artists
together last month to galvanize interest in research
on creativity to find out.
Mental decline once was thought inevitable with aging.
Scientists now know thats not true, and the
brain continually rewires and adapts itself even in
Even dementia "doesnt wipe out all aspects
of creativity," says Miller. Indeed, some forms
release astounding abilities to draw by people who
never before did so, providing important clues to
where the brain houses creative abilities.
Take Jack, a businessman who claimed hed never
even been in an art museum. About the time he noticed
problems speaking, he also began compulsively painting
canvases full of brightly colored lines.
His painting improved - he even won awards - as the
language center of his brain decayed. By the time
he painted a stunningly vivid purple and yellow portrait
of a parrot, "He no longer knew what a bird was,"
Jack had an illness often confused with Alzheimers
called "frontotemporal dementia." It initially
spares the parietal lobes important for visual artistry
even as it destroys other regions crucial for verbal
skills, Miller explains.With Alzheimers, in
contrast, early damage to visual-artistry areas leaves
patients unable to copy simple geometric designs.
So illness can affect creativity - but how does being
creative affect healthy elders? Consider the show
tune-belting Senior Singers Chorale, who are part
of an unusual four-year study.
Dr. Gene Cohen of George Washington University is
tracking the Arlington, Va.-based chorus and similar
arts programs for independent seniors in New York
and San Francisco. His theory is that the challenge
of learning from professionals - "were
way beyond bingo" - improves mental, and possibly
The singers average age is 80; the youngest
is 65 and the oldest 96. Some have even shown up for
weekly rehearsal grieving a spouses death, and
"afterward they say, `I feel better,"
said chorus director Jeanne Kelly of the Levine School
of Music. "Its emotionally really good
Final study results are due next year, but preliminary
data suggest participants get more than support: Compared
with their elderly neighbors, they suffer less depression,
make about three fewer doctor visits a year, take
two fewer medications and have increased their other
"We all probably could have told him that to
begin with," laughs Betty Gail Elliott, 73, who
joined the chorus with her 84-year-old sister. "When
you have interesting things to do, you tend to be
more outgoing and have a more positive attitude, and
therefore you are more healthy."
In a poem to Cohen and Kelly, she wrote: "Our
eyes may be dimmer than they were, our hearing may
not be too hot. But friends, you just better believe
we make the most of what weve got."
Taken together, research like Millers and Cohens
could help arts groups better select projects to offer
to different groups of elders.
It even could influence what art decorates their walls:
Older people wont see blues as well as reds.
The eyes light-sensing abilities change with
normal aging, says University of California, Los Angeles,
neuroscientist Dahlia Zaidel, who flips through masterpieces
by an aging Renoir to show the color-perception changes
hit just about everyone.
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