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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of two women holding watercolors (AFTA)
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2.2: Enhancing Individual Quality of Life

Community arts programs run by professional artists have powerful positive results. Involvement in challenging, participatory programs has a positive effect on physical health, mental health, and social functioning in older adults. Art has true health promotion and disease prevention effects and helps older adults to maintain independence and reduce dependency, which drives the need for long-term care.

The first significant study of the individual benefits of arts participation was The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults, initiated by the National Endowment for the Arts and conducted in 2001 by Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University. Using a rigorously controlled experimental design, the study involved 300 participants at three sites: 150 in community arts groups and 150 in a control group matched in all major areas of functioning. The average age in both groups was 80—older than the average life expectancy in the United States. Both groups were identically active at the start of the project. Professional teaching artists led all the arts groups.

Cohen based his study design on established gerontology research focused on the connection between a sense of control and the immune system; social relationships and blood pressure/stress levels; aging and how the brain processes emotions; and aging and being able to use both sides of the brain simultaneously. (At younger ages, one side is dominant.) He found that by all measurements of physical health, mental health, and social functioning, there was stabilization and actual improvement for those in the arts groups, while in the control group there was a decline. The study found that participants in the arts groups

How Cognitively Fit Older Adults Benefit

Other research into the connection between arts and quality of life has shown similar mental, physical, and social benefits for cognitively fit older adults:

Dancing

Playing music

Creating visual art

Assessing the effects of the North Dakota Council on the Arts’ Art for Life project on the negative feelings that often characterize life in institutional settings, researchers found that after eight months of folk arts activities, participants felt significantly less bored, lonely, and helpless. The project also distracted older adults, whose average age was 86, from their physical pain and stimulated their cognitive faculties.33

How Older Adults with Dementia Benefit

Older adults with dementia experience a better quality of life when they participate in the arts, according to research findings:

The arts and aging field can also learn from recent research into the effects of exercising the body, mind, and social ability. Notable findings include the following:

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