By DARBY PATTERSON
It’s very easy to accept and excuse changes in memory and responsiveness as age advances. After a certain decade, it’s not uncommon to hear jokes about “senior moments.” I do not find this trifle amusing and I never have – even as a younger woman. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had lapses of memory for my entire life and find little difference now. Let me illustrate:
In high school there was a regular contingent (mostly from the music department) who would show up after early morning orchestra practice to deliver what I’d left behind in the cafeteria before class. Usually, it was my purse. I clearly recall losing a lovely yellow cardigan that was a Christmas present, the first day I wore it to school. Santa was not happy and never forgot. I lost gloves and hats (life threatening in a Minnesota winter) and went on to become a chronic loser of house keys, car keys, cars in parking lots, library books and whatever was figuratively not attached to my body.
Rather than become more acute, this loser syndrome has subsided with age. Now, it’s usually just car keys – and they are misplaced, not lost. Like so many people, I’ve learned to compensate for a weakness and have it better under control now than ever before. I certainly don’t attribute anything to “senior moments” and I urge you to also purge that expression from your vocabulary.
Consequently, I was very excited when I ran across a study published by the American Society on Aging in 2006. It was written by Gene D. Cohen, Ph.D., who recently passed away after many years of studying the aging process. The research, funded by a grant, drew upon numerous studies along with control group studies with older people at sites across the nation. Most fascinating for me – due to my passion for the arts – is that it focuses the positive impact that involvement in the arts can have upon the brain as we age. The results are physical (new pathways and connections that build in the brain), emotional (a heightened sense of well being), and social (a strong network of friends and acquaintances).
I plan to write more about this in future columns and dig deeply into this aspect of aging. As an introduction, let me tell you about some purely physical attributes of the brain that are affected when we engage in creativity. By the way, these changes in the brain also improve overall health, longevity and quality of life. When we create and master something new, our sense of well being is enhanced. Doing a painting, learning a dance, performing music, participating in an arts activity shows that we are, indeed, capable of doing or learning something new. This success tells our brains that we have greater control of our lives. This positive response sends signals to the immune system where new T cells are produced that help protect our bodies. According to Dr. Cohen’s research, T cells play a critical role in immune defense. Also stimulated are NK cells that “attack tumor cells and infected body cells.”
There are many other physiological changes that accompany participation in the arts as we age. It doesn’t seem to matter what your creative weapon is – dancing is great as is singing in a choir. People benefit from painting, sculpting, working with fabric, wood carving – there is no limit to the artistic medium. The key ingredients include the challenge to do something new, interaction with other people in the activity and a sense of accomplishment. Together, there is real evidence these elements combine to build brain power, a positive attitude and improved health in the second half of life.
Darby Patterson is a member of the Sacramento County Adult and Aging Commission and the author of “Meow.org, The Cat-Napping Caper.” Visit Darby at www.storiesandbooks.com.