It’s no coincidence that your fox-trot-loving great-aunt lived to a ripe old age, putting you and your siblings to shame with her dexterity. A robust set of research suggests that participatory arts activities are effective mechanisms for increasing the health and quality of life of aging individuals. In particular, the evidence indicates that:

  • Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing (i.e., perceived quality of life)
  • Taking dance classes bolsters cognition and motor skills, and even lessens the likelihood of developing dementia later in life
  • Playing a musical instrument has myriad positive effects, including dementia risk reduction
  • Visual arts practice generates increases in social engagement, psychological health and self-esteem

Just how the arts benefit society is one of the most studied topics in arts research, to the extent that multiple literature reviews, most notably the RAND Corporation’s decade-old landmark Gifts of the Muse, have sought to compile our collective knowledge on the subject. In recent years, several important initiatives and publications have added to this evidence base, including the final report earlier this year from the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project and National Endowment for the Arts’s 2011 literature review on the arts and human development. Over the past few months, Createquity has been reviewing these and other publications with an eye toward creating a continually-updated catalogue of demonstrated impacts for arts activities. What are all of the ways in which the arts contribute to or detract from wellbeing, and how strong is the evidence supporting each of those claims?

Our review of the literature addressing these questions yielded a surprising result: the most compelling evidence of the value of the arts revolves around improving the lives of older adults. Better understanding the relationship between the arts and aging may help to identify areas for improvement in future research into wellbeing, as well as opportunities for investing in the quality of life of older individuals.

Painter — photo by Flickr user M-n-M

The global population is aging in unprecedented numbers and living longer than ever. Between 1980 and 2010, a period marking most of millennials’ present lifetimes, the number of U.S. centenarians increased by nearly two-thirds! Longer lifespans bring immediate implications for many and eventual implications for us all, if we’re lucky. While extending the so-called golden years can be a blessing, challenges include deteriorating health, social isolation, loss of loved ones, and life transitions.

Fortunately, research shows that arts-related interventions can help (in some cases, more so than traditional Western medicine). In particular, there is substantial causal evidence that participatory arts activities help to maintain the health and quality of life of older adults. These benefits, detailed below, include improvements in cognitive and tactile abilities, subjective wellbeing, and dementia risk reduction (although the effects on managing dementia are less clear).

Jamming and Grooving Towards Better Health

The literature on the effects of participatory arts engagement within aging populations is significant not only for the breadth of demonstrated benefits to older adults, but also the relatively high quality of evidence supporting these claims.

Most of the literature we encountered involved making music, although a number were focused on dance. Music and movement activities (playing instruments, singing, dancing) have been shown to improve mental and physical health among older adults. In a randomized controlled trial of 212 British adults over the age of 60, those who participated in weekly singing groups over three months were found to have had improved mental health (decreased anxiety and depression) compared to those who didn’t. These health effects were mostly sustained over a period of at least three months after the weekly singing ended. By contrast, the positive effects of instrument playing do not always persist over the longer term following participation, unless participants have trained or practiced over an extended period of their lives. This might explain why lifelong engagement with music, particularly playing an instrument, is correlated with improved memory among older adults ─ and why some older musicians, like Herbie Hancock at a solid 76, still perform with as much gusto now as they did in their prime. Despite a smaller sample size, another randomized controlled trial of 35 adults aged 60 and over suggested health benefits of dance for older adults. Those who took weekly dance classes over a six-month period showed improved cognition and attention, posture and balance, and hand/motor skills like steadiness and aim in comparison to the control group.

Other research points to the role of the arts in improving overall quality of life for older adults more generally, such as attitudes toward social life. For example, an evaluation of a different, yearlong weekly singing program for adults aged 60 and over revealed marked improvements in emotional wellbeing, especially for those who had been widowed. A mixed-methods study of the effects of painting lessons among older adults in the same age range documented similar improvements in both mental health and social wellbeing. After having participated in these professionally conducted lessons, participants noted increases in social engagement, their sense of belonging, and self awareness and understanding. Likewise, a randomized controlled trial of 50 older adults who participated in 12 visual art sessions over a month showed improvements in self-esteem and anxiety reduction. No wonder your grandmother was always in a good mood after watercoloring class, treating you to ice cream when you picked her up!

Doses of Art to Stay Lucid?

Every 66 seconds, an American develops Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. As the population ages, millions will be affected: the number of Americans with the disease will double between 2015 and 2050. With soaring diagnoses come soaring costs ─ financial, emotional, and social ─ for patients and their caregivers. Establishment of accessible and cost-effective methods of delaying Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses is crucial.

A 21-year longitudinal study of 469 older adults aged 75 and over published in 2003 found that playing an instrument, reading, and playing board games were strongly associated with lower incidence of dementia. In fact, those who scored in the highest third on the study’s cognitive-activity scale had a 63 percent lower risk of dementia than those in the lowest third. Dancing was the only physical activity to show similar effects.

Arts engagement also seems to benefit older adults who already have dementia, providing improved communication, cognitive function, self-esteem and social participation. TimeSlips, a creative storytelling program for people with dementia, appears to promote engagement, alertness and social interaction among participating adults, as well as improved attitudes among caregivers towards their patients. On the other hand, a 2013 report from the National Endowment for the Arts cites a review of 24 studies that presents a more mixed picture of the evidence, with music interventions leading to both positive and negative outcomes for individuals in severe stages of dementia-related illness. It’s also important to note that methodological challenges abound in this area of research, including confounding external factors related to social context, interrelated variables, and inconsistent outcome measures, all of which makes drawing firm conclusions difficult.

In fact, a separate literature review by Tony Noice et al. notes similar shortcomings in a broader set of research on participatory arts for older adults. As a general rule, research on the benefits of the arts lags behind the level of rigor frequently encountered in the broader universe of scientific research. So while the evidence described above is quite strong by arts research standards, it nevertheless has limitations. Other opportunities for improvement, according to Noice et al., include introducing more standardized assessment of interventions across art forms and measuring effects over a longer period of time. Though the work to date has been promising, until studies on the effectiveness of arts interventions for older adults more consistently meet rigorous standards, their ability to shape perception of the value of such programs will remain limited.

Music has powers by Flickr user Jinx McCombs

Music has powers — photo by Flickr user Jinx McCombs

As mentioned earlier, we discovered this wealth of literature on arts and aging as part of a larger inquiry into the benefits of the arts in general. That inquiry, in turn, extends a longer-term initiative on Createquity’s part to reconcile the benefits of arts and culture with broader theories of wellbeing (or quality of life), such as the capability approach. Our next article will explore some of the other areas of benefit that have been claimed for arts participation, along with an assessment of the evidence backing up those claims.

In the meantime, rest assured knowing the older people in your life who participate in the arts are not just pursuing a silly pastime. For some, it might just be the key to a worry-free life or a still-taut mind ─ all the more reason to encourage them to channel their inner Aretha, Baryshnikov, or Picasso.

  • cfoat49

    I’ve shared with my friends who are mostly over 65 asking “What can you offer for others? and What do you do for yourself?” I co-teach a paper crafting group of peers and teach a paper crafting class at a Residential Care facility. Since retirement, I’ve thrived on unleashing my own creativity.