Research on Creativity and Aging: The Positive Impact of the Arts on Health and Illness

By Cohen, Gene D. | Generations, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Research on Creativity and Aging: The Positive Impact of the Arts on Health and Illness

Cohen, Gene D., Generations

The first national longitudinal study is a milestone for quality of later life.

Since the mid 1970s, we have witnessed two major sea changes in how we think about and understand aging (Cohen, 2005) both of which have had a significant impact on research in aging and the relationship between the arts and health and illness in later life.


Up until the last quarter of the twentieth century, aging was largely equated with a scries of decremental changes with the passage of time. Significant decline with advancing years was seen as inevitable-our destiny. Dementing disorders were collectively senility, a term that connoted the natural course of growing old. But by 1975 a fundamental conceptual change was stirring in the way that negative changes with aging were being interpreted. New hypotheses emerged attempting to explain decrements that accompanied aging not as normal and inevitable concomitants of age, but instead as age-associated problems that were modifiable disorders.

For the scientist, the idea that a negative change is caused by a problem rather than by normal aging creates an opportunity to modify the problem. For the policy maker, such a recognition results in a new sense of responsibility to do something about the problem. Thinking about modifiable age-associated problems was a sea change that launched the modern federal infrastructure of programs for research on aging. In 1975, the National Institute on Aging appointed its first director, while the National Institute of Mental Health established a new research center on mental health and agingthe first federal research program explicitly focused on aging to be established in any country (the author of this article had the opportunity to become the new center's first chief). That same year, 1975, the Veterans Administration launched its GRECC program (for Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Centers). As rigorous research on aging gained speed in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, the "problem focus" in turn led to the development of the field of geriatrics, in the 19805.

The transition from seeing negative changes with aging as being one's destiny to a new view of modifiable age-associated problems was a huge leap in itself. The culmination of the "problem" view of aging came with the concept of "successful aging"-defined as aging that reflected a minimum number of "usual aging" problems and a minimum degree of decline (Rowe and Kahn, 1998). The next step was another big leap: to the recognition that aging could be accompanied by potential beyond problems. This view, the focus on the potential of aging, began emerging by the end of the twentieth century and reflected a second major conceptual sea change in aging. As a new century began, The Creative Age (Cohen, 2000a) was published as the first book totally focused on creativity and aging. Efforts at health promotion and disease prevention among older adults can only go so far when they are restricted to targeting problems. Ultimately, promoting health with aging is perhaps best realized when potential with aging is tapped. Research directions and opportunities in this area, with a focus on creativity and aging, and the positive impact of the arts on health and illness in the second half of life, is the thrust of this article.


New research on psychological growth and development in the second half of life has led to a new understanding of the capacity for positive change and creative expression in the second half of life (Cohen, 2005). These qualities are particularly apparent in the realm of folk art, which is actually dominated by older artists (Cohen, 2000a). (Also see article by Zeitlin, this issue.)

Often when older people are recognized for outstanding work, they are typically regarded as exceptions to the rule-as if creativity and outstanding performance were not significant parts of aging.

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