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Staying Active

How the Arts Can Keep You Healthy

When you think of the key ingredients to staying healthy and active as you age, things like regular checkups, exercise, and a balanced diet probably come to mind. And while these are important parts of a healthy lifestyle, you may not realize that another activity — creative expression — can pay big dividends for your physical and mental well being throughout your life.

“Optimal health and function are multidimensional,” explains UAB Geriatrician Andrew Duxbury, MD. “Preserving health and function for older adults is about more than just controlling diseases. There are also social, and economic components that interact to comprise optimal health.”

Our Basic Human Needs — And How Creative Expression Fills Them

Dr. Duxbury emphasizes that there are three key human needs that are often overlooked in older adults:

  1. The need to create artistically. “Whether it’s an older woman growing prize roses in her garden or an older man performing in community theater, we all have a need to express ourselves in a creative way,” says Dr. Duxbury. “This need continues throughout our lives and shouldn’t be dismissed in older adults.”
  2. The need to be needed. “We’re social beings, and we don’t do well physically or emotionally living in isolation,” observes Dr. Duxbury. “We rely on other people needing us in some way. Creative expression — whether performing, painting, or writing for others — can provide an outlet for this important need.”
  3. The need to express one’s individuality and make a mark of “self.” Dr. Duxbury explains that this idea is less important in Eastern cultures, which place more emphasis on society and less on the individual. “But in our Western culture, we have a strong need to express our individuality and make some lasting mark of who we are and what we value.”

Dr. Duxbury stresses that for optimal health, each of these basic needs must be met. “The absence of any one of these needs can lead to isolation, depression, and psychological changes that will often manifest as a medical issue,” he says. “The arts and performance provide an outlet for meeting these important needs that extend throughout our lifetimes.”

Benefits of Creative Expression — And Finding Ways to Practice Your Talents

All forms of creative expression require cognitive and physical activity that provide important health benefits for older adults. “We know that older adults should stay cognitively engaged to keep their brains healthy, and creative expression provides this kind of stimulation” explains Dr. Duxbury. “For example, acting requires you to process a great deal of information simultaneously. You must memorize your lines and know your cues. Also, writing, musical performance, and visual arts require you to process and interpret information, which is highly stimulating to the older adult brain.”

Most forms of creative expression also require some degree of physical activity — another benefit for older adults. “Performance is especially good because it involves physical action. The body is an instrument to a certain extent,” says Dr. Duxbury.

“I would encourage older adults to follow their creative passion – whether it be visual arts, performance, music, writing, or some other pursuit in which they can express themselves,” Dr. Duxbury stresses. He says there are many opportunities for older adults to pursue the arts in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, senior centers, and community theater groups. “Practicing your creative passion with others also provides social interaction, which is an essential need that can be difficult to fill if older adults live alone or don’t have family members nearby.”

While many older adults were engaged in some form of creative expression in their youth, others may come to it later in life. “The important thing to remember is that it’s never to too late to begin expressing yourself creatively. Performance, visual arts, creative writing, and music all provide important, beneficial outlets for expressing ourselves — telling the story of who we are.”

Article last updated: June 15, 2009 10:03 AM