We all know to eat right, exercise, and get a good night’s sleep to stay healthy. But can flexing our creative muscles help us thrive as we age?

Ongoing research looking at singing group programs, theater training, and visual arts for older adults suggests that participating in the arts may improve the health, well-being, and independence of older adults.

“Researchers are highly interested in examining if and how participating in arts activities may be linked to improving cognitive function and memory and improving self-esteem and well-being,” said Lisa Onken, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research.


Lifting Their Voices for Healthy Aging

“Scientists are also interested in studying how music can be used to reduce behavioral symptoms of dementia, such as stress, aggression, agitation, and apathy, as well as promoting social interaction, which has multiple psychosocial benefits.”

“There’s a pressing need to develop novel, sustainable, and cost-effective approaches to improve the lives of older adults,” said Julene K. Johnson, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing.

“Singing in a community choir may be a unique approach to promote the health of diverse older adults by helping them remain active and engaged. It may even reduce health disparities.”

Johnson tested this approach, leading Community of Voices, the largest randomized clinical trial to test the impact of participating in a community choir on the health and well-being of nearly 400 culturally diverse adults, age 60 and older, from 12 senior centers in San Francisco.

The centers were randomly chosen to conduct the choir program immediately (six intervention groups) or six months later (six control groups).

Outcome measures were collected at baseline (prior to starting the intervention), six months (end of randomization phase), and 12 months (one year after enrollment). Each choir met once a week in 90-minute sessions for 44 weeks and performed in several informal concerts.

At weekly rehearsals, professional choral directors from the San Francisco Community Music Center trained in the intervention-led activities to promote health and well-being.

Researchers assessed participants’ cognition, physical function, and psychosocial function, as well as their use and cost of healthcare services, before they started the choir program and again after six and 12 months.

A unique aspect of the study was its use of community partners to engage, enroll, and retain a large group of racially and ethnically diverse and low-income older adults.

Participating in the community choir showed positive results within six months. In particular, it reduced feelings of loneliness and increased interest in life.

However, cognitive and physical outcomes and healthcare costs did not change significantly. Johnson attributed the improvements to the choir providing a meaningful, regular opportunity to meet new people, build social support, and increase a sense of belonging.

“The study showed increased interest in life because singing in the choir provided a regular, structured activity for participants,” Johnson said. “Access to regular activities in diverse, low-income communities is vital for older adults to remain active and engaged in their community.”

“As these studies continue, we expect the results to show us how we can implement cost-effective, community-based programs that benefit older people,” Onken said.


Theater Improvising to Cope with Dementia

Northwestern University is looking to another art form, theater improvisation, to help older adults with early-stage dementia be social and improve their quality of life.

“The Memory Ensemble is for people newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia who are looking for opportunities to engage in programs that fit their needs,” said Darby Morhardt, Ph.D., outreach, recruitment, and education core leader at Northwestern’s Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Memory Ensemble’s 69 participants learn how to use their instincts, creativity, and spontaneity to explore and create improvisational theater.

The program, developed in 2010 by Northwestern and the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, seeks to improve the quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s and related disorders and to transfer these benefits to other communities.

As part of the eight-week program, groups of 10-15 participants, age 50-90, attend 90-minute sessions that are purposely repetitive and follow a specific pattern. Two facilitators — a clinical social worker and a master teaching artist in theater and improvisational techniques — guide participants through various activities.

Many Memory Ensemble exercises involve practicing observation, listening, and then using one’s imagination to find creative solutions. Here are some examples:


  • Participants’ moods are assessed at check-in with “smiley faces”
  • A metaphor exercise: “If my feelings could be a color, they would be …”
  • A gentle warmup of stretching and breathing
  • A skill-building exercise in which participants imagine a character in a challenging situation or pretend to turn an object into something else
  • The “checkout” activity, another smiley face assessment


“We wanted participants to be in a safe but challenging environment,” said the program’s co-founder, Christine Mary Dunford, Ph.D., of Lookingglass Theater Company.

“We’re putting them in situations where they may feel anxiety. But our motto is, ‘When I feel anxious or uncertain, I can stop, breathe, observe, and turn to my imagination, and an answer will come.’ As a result, we’ve found they feel more successful and empowered.”

The program does not aim to slow decline or improve cognition but to help people with dementia enjoy their lives, according to Morhardt.

“There are limits to medical treatments for people with dementia,” she said. “Patients and families are looking for ways to continue to engage. For participants in the program, it’s about being in the moment and using their imagination. We enhance their remaining skills and mood.

“As the condition progresses, it can become challenging to communicate with words, so we really focus on nonverbal means of expression.”

Preliminary results show participation in the Memory Ensemble improves mood, decreases anxiety, and increases a sense of belonging, normalcy, and de-stigmatization, said Dunford. Participants also report feelings of achievement, empowerment, and self-discovery.

Future plans include developing an evidence-based curriculum for researchers, arts therapists, and theater professionals to replicate the program in other communities and a theater intervention program for caregivers.


Research on music, theater, dance, creative writing, and other participatory arts shows promise for improving older adults’ quality of life and well-being, from better cognitive function, memory, and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction.

For more information, visit NIA at nia.nih.gov.

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