SENIORS: Flexing your creative muscles

We all know the importance of physical exercise and healthy lifestyle to stay healthy. But did you know that flexing your creative muscles can help you thrive as you age? Well, recent and ongoing research emphasize the potential of creative arts to treat, prevent, and ameliorate several aging-related health conditions.

Music and arts run through the very fabric of our lives, enriching and enlivening it. Engaging in creative or expressive arts has been linked with improving self-esteem, wellbeing and memory, promoting social interaction, and reducing stress, loneliness, and depression.

Music is the most common participatory art studied. However, other creative pursuits such as theatre, dance, pottery, visual arts, and creative writing also provide physical, emotional, and psycho-social benefits for older adults.

Lifelong music training is associated with many benefits, including improved memory, cognition and hearing. Those who begin singing or playing musical instruments when older also derive benefits in many areas of health and wellbeing.

A common concern of older adults is difficulty understanding speech when there is background noise. Another challenge is decrease in auditory working memory with age. There is compelling research evidence that musical training and participation can be a solution for both concerns.

A study that compared the brain activity and hearing in older people with and without music training found that musicians’ brains are quicker to respond to sounds. Moreover, older musicians can distinguish sounds more consistently, and understand speech in background noise better than older non-musicians.

Participation in music-related activities enhances communication skills, cognitive function, and physical health. Though research has clearly shown the many health benefits of participation in music, the frequency or intensity of participation required to gain these benefits remains uncertain.

Music has proven to be beneficial for people recovering from stroke or brain injury. Stroke survivors who are unable to speak are often able to sing the same words clearly, suggesting that repeated music training could enable some stroke patients to regain their speech.

Similarly, music can enhance movement in people with Parkinson’s disease. Music therapy has been found to have multiple benefits for people with dementia such as reducing anxiety, agitation, depression and aggression, and increasing alertness, wellbeing and quality of life.

Researchers have reported that persons with Parkinson’s Disease showed dramatic improvement in flexibility and movement after participating in ballroom dancing.

A Swedish study reported the social and cognitive benefits for people who participated in art program. Creating art helps individuals relax, provide a sense of control, reduce depression and anxiety, encourage playfulness and humour sense, besides improving cognition and self-esteem.

Studies have shown that acting classes conducted for older adults compel cognitive, emotional and social action, and provide strong social support. Even 4 weeks of training has been shown to significantly improve cognitive measures, and self-reports of personal growth and quality of life.

Neuroimaging done on older adults participating actively in theatre revealed distinct improvement in brain function and connectivity. Unlike playing a musical instrument, acting does not require previous training or initial interest.

Another art form, theatre improvisation, has been found to help older adults with early-stage dementia be social and improve their quality of life. Participants learn how to use their instincts, creativity, and spontaneity to explore and create improvisational theatre.

Improve theatre does not rely on memory, and helps individuals with dementia be in the moment and use their imagination. Since it can become challenging to communicate as dementia advances, the focus is more on nonverbal means of expression.

Preliminary studies show participation in Improv theatre improves participants’ mood, decreases anxiety, and provides a sense of belonging, and normalcy. Participants also report feelings of achievement, empowerment, and self-discovery, and feeling less stigmatized.

One might wonder how long the benefits of participating in the arts would last. The few studies that have focused on this question report that as with exercise, when people stop music training, or other arts activities, the benefits dwindle.

Participatory arts such as music, theatre, dance, creative writing show promise for improving older adults’ quality of life and well-being, from better cognitive function, memory, and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction. Identify your interest and start flexing your creative muscles.

Padmaja Genesh, who holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. A past resident of Red Deer, and a past board member of Red Deer Golden Circle, she is now a Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Please send your comments to padmajaganeshy@yahoo.ca

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