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Is Art the Fountain of Youth: A Wrap Up on NEA/NIH conference on arts and aging

"Is art the fountain of youth? What are the potentials and how can we exploit them?"

So asked David Reuben, chief of the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles. As moderator, Reuben asked the first of many questions at last Friday's workshop on Research Gaps and Opportunities for Exploring the Relationship of the Arts to Health and Well-Being in Older Adults, held at the National Academies of Science in Washington, DC.

Throughout the day neuroscientists, psychologists, researchers, and practitioners in health and the arts looked at the current state of arts and aging research, and presented new research as well. Many of the scholars cited the need for higher quality research in this area, noting that much of the existing research lacks the methodological rigor to be fully useful.

A morning session focused on the effects of music therapy on cognitive function. Nina Kraus, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern University, discussed how music can combat hearing loss among older adults. During the course of her research, Kraus learned that musicians' nervous systems are literally tuned to their instruments. A strong advocate for music therapy, Kraus said, "If I could put my money somewhere, it would be on music; it seems a powerful model for auditory learning."

Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, shared his research on how listening to music or making music can actually change brain function and structure. He illustrated his findings with a powerful video of a Parkinson's patient whose movement improved markedly while he listened to music. Later this fall, Schaug will publish his study comparing music intonation therapy against 'speaking therapy' for stroke patients.

Anne Basting, executive director of the Center on Age and Community at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, encouraged researchers to look at art therapy measurements holistically. "There's no need to isolate music therapy or visual arts therapy," she said, commenting that researchers should focus on finding the mechanisms that prove the effectiveness of art therapy for older adults.

The question of how to evaluate art therapies financially remains a challenge. RAND Senior Mathematician Emmett Keeler gave the audience a primer on how to create a cost-benefit analysis for arts programs in healthcare settings, using a choral singing program for seniors as an example.

In addition to analyzing art therapies, researchers also investigated the design of spaces inhabited by older adults. Victor Regnier, an award-winning architect and professor of architecture at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, looked at good and bad design in long-term care facilities. Good design, it turns out, is all about making these facilities friendly to the resident as well as the family. This means connecting the facilities' social spaces (such as libraries, fireplaces, and cafes), with main pathways. Another important element is choice. "Good design means giving residents control over the environment. You can preview a room and choose to go in or not," said Regnier.

In the same session, Valerie Fletcher, executive director of Human Centered Design added, "Design influences our sense of comfort, confidence, and control…. All too often for older adults in long-term care, design has a negative impact."

Researchers repeatedly called for better research, which may lead to more effective and widespread use of art therapy as an treatment option for older adults. Fletcher commented, "Extraordinary demographics shape us; in the 20th century we added 30 years to the lifespan. ... We are slipping behind other countries that believe aging is a fact."

Basting called for more 'human-centered' research. "If an arts intervention makes people more compliant without raising quality of life, you're creating an intervention for a system," she noted. At the same time, better research on arts and aging may have immense benefits. "Even if we can delay dementia by five years, that could have huge effect on individuals, families, and costs," said Julene Johnson, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco’s Institute for Health & Aging.

David Reuben concluded the final talk-back session with a parting observation: "Art is a lot like life, it's complicated and messy. To our sponsors and researchers: don't walk away from the mess."

This first-ever convening was co-hosted by the National Academies of Science, the National Endowment for the Arts, and three divisions within the National Institutes of Health (NIH): the National Institute on Aging, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, and the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine. The event is the latest project of the NEA's Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development, an alliance of 14 federal agencies and departments to encourage more and better research on how the arts help people reach their full potential at all stages of life.

A video and transcript of the workshop will be available at on September 24 with information on published papers to follow. And don't forget to tune in at on Wednesday, September 19 for an Interagency Task Force webinar that looks at arts education. 

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