Creativity’s Anti-aging Effects

by Nancy Monson

For some of us, our inner artist only emerges later in life

Some of us hit our creative peak early in life, but for others, career and family monopolize our attention, and creativity doesn’t peak until our later years. Georgia O’Keefe, for instance, did some of her best work in her later years, and Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her 70s. Likewise, Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her 60s when she began to write her Little House on the Prairie books, and Jamil Ahmad published his first novel, The Wandering Falcon, at age 80.

Besides the satisfaction of giving in to the urge to create, more and more research is pointing to the value of taking up a new interest, hobby or craft as you age, learning an instrument, challenging yourself with word games and crossword puzzles, and seeking out unique experiences. Not only can these creative activities help you stay active and interested in life, they also have potent mental and physical effects.

We need the charge of doing something creative to feel good mentally, particularly as the decades pass. According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and author of Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment, that’s because the level of the brain chemical dopamine, which brings on a natural high, declines as we age. By seeking out novel experiences, we can trigger dopamine surges and regain that feeling of satisfaction. George Washington University psychiatrist Gene Cohen, M.D., author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain and an expert on the health benefits of creativity for older adults, says that trying new things and being creative also promotes brain plasticity (flexibility and growth) and even prompts our brains to rewire, which may fend off dementia and help to maintain health. “When you challenge the brain, your brain cells sprout new connections, called dendrites,” he explains, “and new contact points, called synapses, that improve brain communication.”

Cohen has the data to prove that creativity has a powerful anti-aging effect on the mind and body: In a two-year study of healthy adults over age 65 sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, he found that those who engaged in painting, writing, poetry, jewelry-making or singing in a choir had better overall physical health, made fewer visits to the doctor, used less medication and had fewer health problems than a control group that didn’t participate in cultural programs. The “artsy” group also had better morale and reported less loneliness, thanks to a feeling of self-control and mastery, and from maintaining their social engagements. “This study proves that you can’t have a real health promotion program for the elderly without an art component,” he says.

Health benefits of creativity
· May prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive dysfunction by keeping the brain healthy and stimulating new brain connections
· Older patients who are creatively active go to the doctor less often, use less medication, and are less likely to be depressed
· Keeps you engaged with others—which has been shown to extend life—if you choose a social creative pursuit, such as quilting or scrapbooking

Another benefit of creative activities: They’re sustainable. “Art has been in the soul of the species since [the time of] cave people, and its benefits make us keep coming back to it,” Cohen notes. So while you may not stick to an exercise program, you may stick to an art program—which will not only give you a psychological boost, but also a brain boost.

Creative pursuits can also help us relax and distract us from stressful situations—and the better we are at relieving stress, the longer we’ll live and the healthier we’ll be. Harvard’s Herbert Benson, M.D., reports that rhythmic and repetitive activities, such as knitting and sewing, can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and other physical measures of stress. And Harvard’s George Valliant, M.D., who followed 824 people from their teens to old age for more than 50 years, found that creativity is one of the pursuits that make retirement rewarding and satisfying.

If Not Now, When?

Cohen says that as we enter our 40s and 50s, our brains start firing on all cylinders. We begin using both sides of our brain more (the logical and analytical left side and the artistic right side), which stimulates us to be more creative, which in turn prompts us to integrate both left- and right-brain capabilities in a happy cycle of artistic energy. As an added bonus, we become more confident and comfortable with ourselves as we age, and so we may cast off the need to conform. In our mature years, we want to showcase our true selves through the way we speak, act and dress, and the things we do. We may finally throw off the “shoulds” we previously endorsed, embracing instead the life we really want to live.

“There is a lovely interlude when we haven’t lost the mental nimbleness of youth and yet we’ve gained wisdom,” says Sue Shellenbarger, author of The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women . This is when creativity can blossom with age, she notes, and become a means for validating who we are now.

Cohen agrees that many people in mid- to late-life go through a psychological “liberation” phase characterized by an increasing urge and feeling of freedom to do the things they’ve always wanted to do. They hear an inner voice that asks, “If not now, when?” and “Why not—what can they do to me?” that gives them the courage and confidence to try something new and self-expressive.

Boosting Your Creativity

So where and how do you start to put more creative oomph in your life? “Creativity is a form of problem-solving,” explains Tera Leigh, an artist and author of How To Be Creative If You Never Thought You Could , so it can apply to almost any situation in life. What’s more, small changes in your attitude can have a big impact on your creative output. Start with these simple shifts and see where they take you:

Don’t minimize your creative urges. Shellenbarger encourages thinking about what truly is going to make you happy in your later years. “Go toward what gives you joy and allot time to pursue these things—an hour or two a week, at least, and hopefully more.”

Find your creative personality. Relax—you don’t have to search for it. “Your creative personality is already inside of you,” says Leigh. “You don’t have to do anything except invite it to come out and play.”What’s more fun for you: detail-oriented arts, such as quilting, beading or painting? Useful endeavors, for example decorating storage containers or knitting? Or would you rather just plunge in and make a mess in something like cooking or scrapbooking? Experiment to find which creative pursuits best suit your style.Start thinking of new ways to do old things. Rearrange your furniture, throw a new ingredient into an old recipe or learn a new dance step. Or “challenge yourself to come up with five new ways to do something that bores you now,” advises Leigh. “These are simple ways to train yourself to think of life in a new way. The more you think outside the box, the more it will become a habit.”

Psychological benefits of creativity
· Relieves stress
· Raises self-esteem by giving you a sense of self-control and mastery
· Distracts you from worries
· Boosts your mood
Create an artist’s space for yourself. Even if it’s just a couple of boxes for art materials that you hide on a shelf or under the bed, it’s important to honor your artistic urges by claiming a space to express them, says Leigh.

Take a class or join a group. Classes offer opportunities for enhancing your creativity, as well as for socializing with others who share your interests. Both of these are important, since aging studies indicate life-long learning and having a strong social network are critical to a happy, healthy old age.