Although participation in the arts has long been suggested as a beneficial activity for older adults, only recently has there been much formal study of how such participation can enhance healthy aging. “Art for art’s sake” has often been used as an argument for the promotion of the arts, but in environments with limited resources and competing interests, demonstrating health-related benefits for the arts may lead to additional resources being allocated to such activities. Additionally, arts programs can have the benefit of being low cost, often using just a single instructor and no expensive equipment.
A recent review of the 31 available evidence-based studies on the benefits of art participation on older adults described current research on this field and discussed future directions for this type of research. The main focus of this review was on wellness studies concerned with the promotion of cognitive, emotional, physical, or psychological health in older adults without dementia who are capable of performing normal activities of daily living. All of these studies examined participation in making art or performing, rather than exposure to art or a performance. The arts examined in the wellness studies reviewed were music (10 studies), dance (eight studies), theater (seven studies), expressive writing (three studies), and visual arts (three studies).
Music, the most-studied art reviewed, has been shown to have a number of benefits. One landmark study compared older adults who were invited to join a choir to those not invited. Twelve months after the study began, choir members showed decreases in doctor visits, falls, and over-the-counter medication use. Improvements were seen in overall health rating and number of activities performed. In a larger study that randomly assigned individuals to a choir program or a control group, the choir partisans had lower scores on a depression/anxiety scale, and higher scores on a quality of life scale. A survey of older amateur singers before and after joining a musical group showed increases in emotional well-being, social life, quality of life, and self-confidence. In studies of instrumental music, 98 percent of 1,626 survey respondents said that playing an instrument in a group affected their health in a “uniformly positive” way. A study of organ players not only showed decreases in anxiety and depression, but also revealed increases in human growth hormone, a molecule associated with a number of positive health outcomes. Another study that compared the length of time a musical instrument was played (from zero to over 10 years) showed a possible linear relationship between the amount of playing and cognitive performance. However, not all studies reviewed showed such significant results, and in some cases the positive impact of a musical program were not maintained as early as three months after the program was completed. It should be noted that the studies with significant results were considered to be more rigorous.
The dance studies reviewed each looked at cognitive and emotional aspects of dance, and five included measurements of physical activity as well. Although not all studies on dancers showed significant results, most found that dancers showed higher cognitive performance compared to nondancers. One study also reported dancers to have higher subjective well-being. Most studies that looked into physical benefits of dancing also showed better physical performance in dancers compared to nondancers. None of these studies compared the benefits of dance to those of participation in another art form.
Studies on theater participation have repeatedly shown evidence of significant improvements in memory, comprehension, creativity, and problem-solving ability after four-week acting courses. Participants in these courses also showed increases on a personal growth scale and in observed tasks of daily living. Brain imaging has also been conducted on participants in this acting course, and has shown increases in brain volume in areas associated with memory, executive control, and attention. Studies of other theater programs were also generally positive, though the studies were smaller and less conclusive.
Less evidence exists on the impact of expressive or autobiographical writing. While one study showed improvement in processing speed, attention, verbal learning, and memory for participants in an eight-week autobiographical writing course, another study of the same program on a less educated and motivated population did not find such improvements. The third study on writing showed a decrease in depressive symptoms for participants in a program on writing life reviews.
As with writing, less research has been done on the impact of the visual arts. One study of fixed-income adults in a housing complex where they received free onsite painting lessons showed increased social engagement, sense of empowerment, and psychological health. An interview study of 32 retired women with a newfound interest in visual arts showed an enrichment of their mental lives, the development of new skills, greater attention to nature, and a preserved sense of identity. In a study where partisans were randomly assigned to an art class or to a control group, the art class group scored significantly better on measures of anxiety, emotion, and self-esteem.
In concluding their article, the authors described the number of studies available on this topic as a “dismayingly small total number of investigations” and noted that many of the studies were not well controlled according to generally accepted criteria for evaluating study design. Suggestions for improvement included larger numbers of participants and studying more diverse populations, as well as using better measures of outcomes and other methodological improvements. Although they note a great need for additional research, the reviewers also point out that the available research points to positive impacts of the arts for older adults.