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Why Research Into Arts and Aging Is Crucial

Experts push for proof that creativity can help us age well

By Heidi Raschke

The arts are many things to many people, but increasingly those who work in the arts, fund the arts, teach the arts and work in health care are seeking to harness the power of arts to help our society handle the so-called “silver tsunami.”

What can the arts do? Excellent question. It’s one researchers, funders, entrepreneurs, government agencies and creative people all over the planet are grappling with. One thing seems to be clear to all of them: More research is needed so we can truly understand how the arts can help people —  from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds — age better.

It’s the reason Julene Johnson launched her Community of Voices study on the effects of choir participation on health outcomes. It’s also the reason the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) is releasing a creative aging research toolkit called the NEA’s Guide to Community Engaged Research in the Arts and Health (which Johnson helped create) to encourage more research. Look for it on the NEA website.

A Real Need for Better Research

Jane Chu
Jane Chu

“The idea was: Can we incentivize these people in the arts to team up with people from academia who have the research, methodology and experience to engage communities in this work,” says Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of research and analysis. “There is a real need for better research, but it can't just be purely from the academic research sector, and it can't be purely from the arts sector, and there really has to be a hand-holding and a meeting of the minds.”

Iyengar describes the toolkit as an online guide to help organizations and researchers team up going forward and collaborate more effectively.

Once it’s up and running, the NEA will release a report called the Health and Retirement Study, which Iyengar describes as “a large scale study, a longitudinal study of older adults,” looking at a wide range of questions related to arts and culture, including attitudes, participation and consumption.

Relationship Between Arts and Well-Being

“We've done some analyses looking at the correlation between those who engage in the arts as older adults and those who have positive health and well-being outcomes and understanding what the relationship is between those two variables,” Iyengar says. “I hope it'll help to set the stage for much more discussion about the necessity for understanding how the arts contribute to health and well-being.”

In the meantime, Next Avenue took time to chat with Iyengar about the arts, aging and research and NEA chairman Jane Chu’s assertion that, “The research will tell us what we already know.”


Next Avenue: Why is research into artful aging important?

Sunil Iyengar: We all know that there's a demographic shift in baby boomers and older adults. We're having higher percentages of them in the population every day. Advances in health care have made greater longevity possible, on average, for most people. With that comes understanding that people are subject to greater health care costs down the road. People in health and medicine are looking for preventive strategies so we're not simply responding to diseases and conditions as they occur, but rather trying to prevent, or at least, delay them.

Sunil Iyengar
Sunil Iyengar

It’s important not only to understand how the arts can play a role in responding to specific kinds of health conditions but also to think about smart policies and funding apparatus to incentivize creativity and arts participation among older adults — and also younger adults ,too, as they age into these demographics.

The idea is that if people engage, and continue to be engaged, in artistic expression and a creative life, perhaps some of those benefits will adhere later in life. We've seen research that points to that happening.


People, for example, who are musically trained early on and continue to stick with it throughout life seem to be less susceptible to auditory loss and have better memory retention. But we have a long way to go to make the case for the arts relationship to positive health and well-being when it comes to rigorous research, and that's what we're trying to do.

A long way to go?

There have been some very promising smaller scale studies that have shown that the arts appear to delay or ameliorate adverse health effects in terms of motor skills or cognitive ability. The arts also seem to be correlated very strongly with positive reported health outcomes, such as having less periods of hospital stay. There are even some arguments to be made about engagement with the arts helping to offset health care costs for certain individuals over a period of time.

We need more rigorous long-term studies to understand, particularly, diverse populations, which has been a drawback in a lot of research in general.

So there’s a need to build on past research, including the seminal work of Gene Cohen, who looked at the impact of tapping into creative potential to promote health with aging.

Gene Cohen did a really important study [on that], funded by the NEA and the National Institutes of Health. That study still carries a lot of weight. But there's a need to replicate those findings on a larger scale.

I have seen since then many smaller scale studies, not necessarily corroborating, but supporting the hypothesis. The place to go for a better synopsis is a report called The Arts in Aging: Building the Science. It was done by the National Institutes of Health and the NEA, in partnership with the National Academy of Sciences.

What is the most exciting creative aging research happening now?

A lot of people are interested in music and neuroscience. That's because music is one of the art forms where there's been some of the most vital behavioral research. You have a better understanding than you do with some of the other art forms of how it affects the hard-wired part of our brains, our neurology and our motor skills. 

What’s the most surprising fact about the arts and aging?

I don't know if it's surprising, but one of the things that's come up over and over again is when you look at health care outcomes of the arts — the contribution to positive health — a lot of it has to do with reducing symptoms of chronic health care conditions. The arts have been shown to be very effective in helping to almost distract people from their pain.

That's something which the arts seem to be really good at dealing with compared to standard pharmaceutical or other approaches. Symptom management, in other words.

Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy. Read More
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