“Creativity and Aging Study: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults” presented by Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Center on Aging Health and Humanities, George Washington University, and Jeanne Kelly, Director, Levine School of Music, Arlington Campus

Cohen began his presentation by thanking the sponsors of this research: the National Endowment for the Arts, Center for Mental Health Services, SAMHSA, DHHS; National Institute of Mental Health, NIH; AARP; Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation; and the International Foundation for Music Research. He also acknowledged the participating sites: Elders Share the Arts, Center for Elders and Youth in the Arts and the Levine School of Music.

Cohen explained that the research study was designed in 2001 with the aim of measuring the impact of community based cultural programs on the general health, mental health and social activities of older persons, age 65 and older. He added that this is the first study ever conducted using an experimental design and a control group. The preliminary results, he said, reveal strikingly positive differences in the intervention group (those involved in intensive participatory, professional art programs) as compared to a control group not involved in intensive cultural programs. Referring to his written report of the preliminary results, Cohen explained, “The objective of this project has been to evaluate the effects relevant to general health, mental health, overall functioning, and sense of well being in older persons caused by active participation in cultural programs provided by professional artists involved in visual and literary arts, music, and other cultural domains. These programs draw upon a range of art and cultural disciplines, such as painting, pottery, dance, music, poetry, drama, material culture, and oral histories in a creative context.”

Cohen noted that in the mid-70s, public health researchers and policy makers started questioning the premise that age causes illness. Instead, they explored—and came to accept—that some diseases are “age-associated;” as an analogy, Chicken Pox typically occurs in children, but being young doesn’t cause the disease. Also, in 1975, the National Institute on Aging was created, and aging was actively studied as a problem. Today, “the focus is on the potential of aging, and on health prevention and promotion.”

To outline the theory and design of the creativity and aging research study, Cohen again referred to his written report. He called conference participants’ attention to the average age of the older adults in both the intervention and control groups. To be eligible to participate, they had to be 65 or older and generally living independently. In actuality, the age range was 65-100, with an average of 80, which is greater than life expectancy in the United States. Clinicians and researchers would generally consider interventions in this age group successful, in terms of positive health and social function, if there were less decline than expected over time in the intervention as compared with the control group.

Because the projects in Washington, DC, New York and San Francisco each had a different start date, the data analysis has only been completed for Washington, DC. Preliminary results show that not only was there less decline in the intervention group, but there was an improvement in health and social function. Cohen quoted from his written report, as follows:

  • The Intervention Group reported better health one year after baseline starting point measures, while the Control group reported their health was not as good one-year post baseline.
  • Both the Intervention and Control Groups had more doctor visits one year after baseline compared to baseline, but the Control Group increased their doctor visits at a significantly greater rate.
  • Both the Intervention and Control Groups had more medication usage one year after baseline compared to baseline, but the Control Group increased their medication usage at a significantly greater rate.
  • At the one-year follow-up, participants in the Intervention Group reported less falls than at baseline, while the Control Group reported more falls than at baseline.
  • At the one-year follow-up as compared to baseline, participants in the Intervention Group showed greater improvements on each of the depression, loneliness, and morale scales as compared to the Control Group.
  • At the one-year follow-up as compared to baseline, participants in the Intervention Group had on the average an increase of two activities per person, while those in the Control Group had on the average a decrease of two activities per person.

The trend data from both the New York and San Francisco projects show similar results.

In New York, Cohen noted, there was a remark made by a member of the intervention group that led to a rumor that being part of the study would improve your love life. Upon hearing this rumor, several control group members changed their names in an attempt to switch groups. At all three sites, Cohen reported that the older adults participating continued to do so even after the death of a spouse or other close family member.

In conclusion, Cohen stated, “What is remarkable in this study is that after one year the Intervention Group, in contrast to the Control Group, is showing areas of actual stabilization and improvement apart from decline—despite an average age which is greater than life expectancy. These results point to powerful positive intervention effects of these community-based art programs run by professional artists. They point to true health promotion and disease prevention effects. In that they also show stabilization and actual increase in community-based activities in general in the Intervention Group, they reveal a positive impact on maintaining independence and on reducing dependency. This latter point demonstrates that these community-based cultural programs for older adults appear to be reducing risk factors that drive the need for long-term care.”

Cohen introduced Jeanne Kelly, who directs the Arlington campus of the Levine School of Music. Kelly manages the Levine School’s participation in the creativity and aging research study. She shared her passion for conducting the Senior Singers’ Chorale, and noted that it has been the highlight of her career as an opera singer, choral conductor and arts administrator. The initial response to the announcement about this chorus was overwhelming, and many older adults commented that they wanted to participate because the conductor was a professional artist. The chorus of 130 voices meets during three, 10-week sessions a year. They perform approximately nine concerts a year, and have appeared several times on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. Kelly noted that chorus members love performing because they “get to give back” to the community. In working with the chorus, Kelly explained that it is important to treat older adults as professionals though they are not professional singers. It is also important to know when they are giving their all. Since joining the chorus, many of the singers have become involved in other activities, such as voice lessons and the Levine School’s New Horizons Band.

Head shot of Gene Cohen speaking.


Gene Cohen

Community-based cultural programs for older adults appear to be reducing risk factors that drive the need for long-term care.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Study results point to powerful positive intervention effects of these community-based art programs run by professional artists.

Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.


Robert Blancato, Member, Policy Committee,
White House Conference on Aging

Blancato extended his congratulations to the Arts Endowment and acknowledged their role in co-sponsoring this conference with the AARP. He cautioned participants that he is not representing the White House; nevertheless, he reported that the White House has appointed Larry Polivka, a conference participant, to the advisory group for the WHCoA, and that the dates have been moved from October to December 11-14, 2005. He suggested that participants monitor preparatory activities on the Website,

Since there will be only 50 recommendations moving forward from the 2005 WHCoA , he urged participants to educate other organizations about creativity and aging, and build coalitions. The process after the conference to integrate recommendations into public laws should be monitored, as well. Blancato also recommended that participants recruit legislators and the media to help carry the message about the importance of the arts. Further, there should be discussions with conference delegates. Lastly, Blancato reminded participants to keep in mind the current, federal fiscal environment; recommendations for increased funding should be positioned as an investment and not as an expenditure.

Head shot.


Robert Blancato


Gail Gibson-Hunt, Member, Policy Committee,
White House Conference on Aging

Gibson-Hunt reported that the Policy Committee recently decided to divide the issue, “community and social engagement,” into “civic engagement” and “social engagement.” She also reminded participants of the large number of forums, events, conference and meetings all developing recommendations for the WHCoA. She expects that the Policy Committee will review approximately 1500 recommendations. They will refer only 100 to the delegates. At the beginning of the conference, the delegates will vote to select the top 50. Their discussions at the conference will then focus on implementation strategies for the 50 recommendations. Gibson-Hunt urged participants to nominate themselves or others to be delegates. She added that Policy Committee members have been increasingly interested in the conference leading to a comprehensive, long-term care policy for the United States. A connection could be made between this issue and the results of Dr. Gene Cohen’s creativity and aging study.


Head shot with a microphone.


Gail Gibson-Hunt