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Making Art Boosts Seniors’ Psychological Resilience

• July 07, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

German researchers report positive changes in the brains of recent retirees who learned how to create visual art.

If you’re approaching retirement, you’ll be facing some difficult issues, even if your finances are in order. Fundamental concerns inevitably arise, including “What shall I do with my time?” and “How can I continue to feel strong and capable?”

New research from Germany suggests an advantageous answer to both of those questions could be to start making art.

A research team led by neurologists Anne Bolwerk and Christian Maihofner reports “the production of visual art improves effective interaction” between certain regions of the brain.

What’s more, this improvement in brain function—found in a small group of new retirees who took a class in which they created paintings and drawings—was matched by self-reports of strengthened psychological resilience.

Creating art could delay or negate age-related decline in these brain functions.

“Our results have important implications for preventative and therapeutic interventions,” the researchers write in the online journal PLoS One.

The small-scale study featured 28 people between the ages of 62 and 70. All had been retired for at least three months, but no longer than three years.

All began by having their brains scanned, using fMRI technology. They also completed a German version of the Resilience Scale, reporting their level of agreement with such assertions as “I can usually find something to laugh about” and “My belief in myself gets me through hard times.”

For the next 10 weeks, they then attended one of two weekly, two-hour classes. Half participated in a hands-on workshop in which they were introduced to various painting and drawing techniques, and then created their own artworks. The others took an art appreciation course, in which an art historian showed them how to analyze paintings and sculptures and led group discussions.

Finally, all repeated the brain scans and again filled out the Resilience Scale. The researchers found “a significant improvement in psychological resilience in the visual art production group,” but not the art-appreciation group.

The second set of brain scans found increased levels of functional connectivity among those who participated in the hands-on art class—but, again, not among members of the art appreciation class. The improvement was specifically found within the brain’s default mode network, which is associated with cognitive processes such as introspection, self-monitoring, and memory.

“Normal aging seems to affect the intrinsic activity and connectivity of the default mode network,” the researchers note, raising the intriguing possibility that creating art could delay or negate age-related decline in these brain functions.

Why the art makers benefited more from their experience than the art appreciators is an open question. One possibility, the researchers write, is that making art is associated with “enhanced memory processing, which is indeed required when stored knowledge is connected with new information to create creative works.”

“The creation of visual art is a personal integrative experience—an experience of ‘flow,’ in which the participant is fully emerged in the creative activity,” they add. Perhaps this immersion helps strengthen the aforementioned brain connections, which in turn increases self-confidence.

These results complement those of a recent study conducted in three American cities, which found participation in community-based art programs can have health benefits for seniors. Perhaps, instead of a gold watch, retirees should be presented with a set of paint brushes–along with free passes to art classes.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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