Can the Arts Contribute to Healthier Aging?

On September 14th, The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) hosted the workshop, “Research Gaps and Opportunities for Exploring the Relationship of the Arts to Health and Well-Being in Older Adults,” in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and three divisions of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The D.C. workshop featured experts from the health and arts fields, who discussed current arts and aging research, and the need for increased exploration.

According to the NEA blog, David Reuben, chief of the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the event moderator told to the audience, “Art is a lot like life, it’s complicated and messy. To our sponsors and researchers: don’t walk away from the mess.”

The day-long workshop covered a range of topics, from the design of long-term care facilities to the effect of music therapy on cognitive function.

One of the speakers, Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a Dana Foundation grantee, studies music’s effects on brain function and structure. He works with stroke and Parkinson’s patients, and discussed his work in the LA Times in 2010:

Music might provide an alternative entry point” to the brain, because it can unlock so many different doors into an injured or ill brain, said Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist. Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm and emotion—all components of music—engage different regions of the brain. And many of those same regions are also important in speech, movement and social interaction. If a disease or trauma has disabled a brain region needed for such functions, music can sometimes get in through a back door and coax them out by another route, Schlaug says.

According to the NEA blog, “Later this fall, Schlaug will publish his study comparing music intonation therapy against ‘speaking therapy’ for stroke patients.”

A video and transcript of the arts and aging workshop are forthcoming on the NEA website.

And if you’re looking for additional resources on the aging brain, please check out Dana’s Brain Resources for Seniors to find links to validated sites and Dana articles.

– Blayne Jeffries

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