Aging Creatively: A New Study Shows Results

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Seniors in a smecircle of chairs with pianist

The Senior Singers' Chorale, from the Levine School of Music, performs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: Keith Weller.

Are older Americans who enjoy the arts better off than those who don't? The preliminary report of a four-year study says they are. Initiated and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the study "Creativity and Aging" is discovering that on-going, professionally conducted arts programming (including music, poetry, painting, jewelry making, drama, and other artistic pursuits) makes older adults happier and healthier.

Now into its fourth year, the study measures the mental and physical health, as well as the social activity, of 300 older people at arts centers in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and the Washington DC metropolitan area. Half of these groups are enrolled in community-based cultural programs on a weekly basis; the other half are not, serving as a comparison control group. Participants range in age from 65 to 99 years old and had to be living independently at the beginning of the study. Each year, participants receive a variety of tests, responding to questionnaires assessing their general health, mental health, and social life.

According to study findings, participants who are actively involved in high-quality arts programs reported better overall health, fewer doctor visits, a lower use of medications, fewer falls, more energy, and increased involvement in social activities in comparison to the non-arts control group. In addition, arts participants reported lower levels of loneliness, higher morale, and better vision than their counterparts. These findings are all statistically significant.

The study is conducted and coordinated by the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities, at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Dr. Gene Cohen, primary investigator for the study, points out that, "These findings are indeed remarkable in the amount of stabilization and improvement observed in those with an average age of 80 who are engaged in arts programs. After all, 80 years of age is greater than life expectancy. This study is showing true health promotion and prevention effects in an age group that typically has an increased risk for long-term care."

Mrs. Susie Robinson of the CEYA Poetry Ensemble rehearsing with artist Paul Finocchiaro

Mrs. Susie Robinson of the CEYA Poetry Ensemble rehearsing with artist Paul Finocchiaro. Photo: Chenoa Estrada

The three collaborating sites are Elders Share the Arts (NY), the Center for Elders and Youth in the Arts at the Institute on Aging (CA), and the Levine School of Music (DC). The Arts Endowment developed a public-private partnership to sponsor and monitor the study with the Center for Mental Health Services, SAMHSA, DHHS; the National Institute of Mental Health, NIH; the AARP; the Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation; and the International Foundation for Music Research.