Thursday, January 6, 2011


      Creativity matters. It is the key to brain health. Use it or lose it. Or, as Michael Patterson and Roger Anunsen like to say, "Use it and improve it." Being creative not only helps to maintain your cognitive abilities. Creative activities can actually improve our brains.
     That was the message of a free webinar that Patterson and Anunsen, co-founders of mindRAMP, gave yesterday entited Creativity Matters: The sciences of creativity and cognitive enhancement, sponsored by the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA). That's the D.C.-based organization linked to the late Gene Cohen whose research at George Washington University on creativity and art have changed the way scientists are looking at the link between creative activities and brain functions.  
    Cohen launched his 2005 study to see if the decline of cognitive abilities in the elderly could be slowed by enrolling them in creative activities, such as writing, dancing, singing and painting, Patterson and Anunsen pointed out. Much to everyone's surprise (including Cohen), the study indicated that such activities under the supervision of professional artists not only stopped deterioration. It actually strengthened cognitive functions. The brain grew.
     Creative activities give your brain a "cross-training workout," engaging you mentally, physically and socially, say Patterson and Anunsen. The brain is plastic, but you have to do something to stimulate the plasticity. It's there but you have to activate it.
     Patterson and Anunsen's mindRAMP company helps people do just that by working to develop brain wellness education programs and services. During the webinar, they paid homage to several other programs working in the area of creativity and aging:

     The two also directed participants to the NCCA website's "Beautiful Minds" campaign, a national photo essay exhibit celebrating men and women 55 and older who are doing beautiful things with their mind regardless of age. During the seminar we took a couple of "Brain Breaks. The brain lags after 20 minutes, our hosts explained, and needs more blood to function at peak capacity. While participants were encouraged to get up and move around (or, if they were wheelchair-bound, to wave their arms and stretch), our hosts quoted from seniors from the Beautiful Mind project. Creativity is about doing something else, leaving the past for something new, our hosts pointed out. They were particularly struck by the words of Suzanne Knode, who lives at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony
      "I think it takes letting go of the past and letting go of what you did before you became a senior... Allow yourself not to be afraid."


Tuesday, January 4, 2011


 “For me, writing is the only valid medicine I have against the flue, old age, depression, and so on. So that is what I do every day." 
    - May Sarton, quoted in “Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer: Extraordinary Ordinary People on the Art of Staying Creative, Alive, and Aware in Midlife and Beyond"

     Poet May Sarton, famous for her prolific journaling, wasn't just inventing a clever metaphor when she spoke of writing as her proverbial shot in the arm. Writing is medicine.
    The connection between creativity and good mental health has had a long history. After Cicero finished “On Old Age,” the Roman scholar concluded that writing the book had “not only wiped away all the annoyances of old age, but rendered it easy and pleasing.” For years psychologists and psychiatrists have been urging their patients to start journals to write down their feelings, to sing, dance or take up painting, stressing the psychological and emotional benefits of creative activity.
     But more recently scientists are beginning to discover that it's not only mental health that's aided by creative pursuits. Engaging in creative activities actually improves our physical well-being as well. 
     Writing as a cure for the Big C?
      Don't laugh. In 1989 a pioneering study by psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas may not have proven that writing could cure cancer, but it did record health improvements in those students who wrote down how they felt versus those who didn't. 
       Consider the power of music. As Oliver Sacks, author of “The Awakening,” told the 1991 hearings of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, music can have a remarkable effect on those who are ill:  “…one sees Parkinsonian patients unable to walk, but able to dance perfectly well, or  patients almost unable to talk, who can sing perfectly well.”  
      In 2008, Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, concluded a three-year national study of Creativity & Aging, tracking the impact that community-based art programs had on the mental and physical health of men and women age 65-103. The results were astonishing. The participants who took part in singing, writing and painting groups clocked in fewer visits to the doctor, complained of fewer ailments and reported a greater sense of well being than the control group which was not active in the arts. 
     The brain, once thought to be set in stone at an early age, turns out to be quite plastic and subject to change. Older brains might even be more adaptable than younger ones. Engaging in creative activity creates new neurological pathways that bolster our immune systems, which makes us able to fight off disease and deterioration. Our brain neurons are nudged into new patterns and, even more remarkably, are encouraged to grow entirely new connections. In other words, creativity is literally mind blowing (well, at least brain expanding).
     So who can afford NOT to be creative?


Monday, January 3, 2011


      The collection of my mother's newspaper columns, "Post Scripts: A Writing Life After 80," by LaVerne Hammond, is one of the selections offered in the Hillsborough Library's Book Club in a Bag program  Hopefully, the collection of essays, which my mother wrote from age 86-92, will encourage readers to write down their own stories.