Drawing of the brain (Image via Wikimedia)

Drawing of the brain (image via Wikimedia)

You’re never too old to follow your dreams, or so the saying goes. If yours involves making art, there might be some brainy benefits to finally doing so.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota have found that beginning to paint, draw, or sculpt in old age could actually ward off the muddled thinking and slips in memory that befall many.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Neurology, the four-year study tracked the brains of 265 people in their 80s. Only 45 participants identified as artists, and of these, 18 had taken up such hands-on “artistic activities” in middle or later life.

Grandma Moses started painitng late in life (Image via WikiArt)

Grandma Moses started painitng late in life (image via WikiArt)

During the study’s course, 121 seniors developed “mild cognitive problems.” Those who had recently begun acting on creative impulses were 73% less likely to develop mental lapses than those who did not engage artistically at all. Their rate of cognitive impairment was only 16.7%, compared to the norm of 49.2%.

Participants who picked up more crafty hobbies, like woodworking or quilting, were 45% less likely to suffer from thinking and memory problems. The study also found significant benefits for those who used computers and had active social lives.

“Long ago, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ was a common expression,” New York University neurology professor Dr. James Galvin, who was not involved in the study, noted in an editorial that ran alongside it. “Perhaps today, the expression should expand to include painting an apple, going to the store with a friend to buy an apple, and using an Apple product.”

But why is it that artistic engagement in older age affects the brain so deeply? “I really do not know why the results for engaging in the arts are stronger than other activities,” said lead author Rosebud Roberts in an interview with Pacific Standard. “These activities may all have a role in keeping brain cells stimulated, and may help develop new neural pathways. Or continued engagement may enable a person to develop a larger cognitive reserve from which to recruit alternate brain cells to take over function from cells which no longer function.”

Though the study is relatively small, its findings echo that of others in recent years. In 2014, research published by the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE discovered “a significant improvement in psychological resilience” among seniors between 62 and 70 years of age who took art classes. A 2011 study conducted at the University of Glasgow found that quilting similarly helps older brains.

Of course, not everyone who dons a smock late in life will gain the fame of Grandma Moses, who was 76 when she began painting. The art you create may share more similarities with that of President George W. Bush (age 63). Regardless of talent, research is showing, more and more, that it’s just silly not to try.

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

4 replies on “Picking Up Art Later in Life Could Help the Brain”

  1. Must check the original article. At this stage and based upon this Hyperallergic review, it seems the researchers did not consider one option: people at older age may well have less challenges (at work). Those who have sufficient drive to steer their brain (and soul?) into other creative processes, have a ‘build’ that protects against some aspects of ageing. Another option is that continued ‘ordinary’ work is in particular effective to kill the brain at older age. My hypothesis is that by looking at your computer screen to the creative art that leave my hands, your grey matter also may last longer. Says Drager Meurtant

  2. It’s fascinating how the evidence for the role of the arts in aging keeps piling up. As the public information coordinator of the Missouri Arts Council, the state agency supporting the arts in Missouri, I wrote an article on this subject in December 2014 for our website, focusing on several Missouri artists in their 80s:

  3. Does anyone have a link to the actual research article for this? It’s hard to locate in the journal.

    1. Roberts RO, Cha RH, Mielke MM, Geda YE, Boeve BF, Machulda MM, Knopman DS, Petersen RC. Risk and protective factors for cognitive impairment in persons aged 85 years and older. Neurology. 2015 Apr 8. [Epub ahead of print]
      View PubMed

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