How are creativity and longevity connected?
Spending a day at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe this fall inspired me to take a fresh look at creativity and longevity. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was a force in American art for longer than 70 years, but when I think of her, I picture her aging face and see the same depth there as in her swirling flower and bleached-bone paintings of the New Mexican desert.
How are creativity and longevity connected? Can thinking and working creatively — in art, science, business — help us live longer, healthier lives?
Several recent reports have associated the personality trait of openness, which includes mental flexibility and a willingness to consider novel ideas, with longer life. But “openness” is a broad category, and a study published in the June 2012 Journal of Aging and Health indicates that creativity, not intelligence or overall openness, is the subcategory that reduces mortality risk.
Creativity draws on a variety of neural networks within the brain. Study author Nicholas Turiano said, “Individuals high in creativity maintain the integrity of their neural networks even into old age.” A Yale study published earlier in 2012 correlated openness with the robustness of study subjects’ white matter, which supports connections between neurons in different parts of the brain.
Creative thinking can also help us handle stress. If we view life’s stressors as challenges to overcome rather than as insurmountable obstacles, we are more likely to use the neurochemical stress response to respond appropriately. Otherwise, we tend to shuttle it underground where it chronically chips away at body and brain.
Although most studies thus far have looked at those who are naturally open-minded, the results suggest that practicing creative-thinking techniques could improve anyone’s health by lowering stress and exercising the brain.
In June 2013, Jeffrey Kluger reported in Time magazine another possible contribution of creativity to mental and physical health. In general, our processing power and speed do decline with age. However, our brains have the remarkable ability to compensate by reorganizing and creating new pathways. Functions in younger brains are more lateralized — language in the left hemisphere, spatial reasoning in the right — but much less so in older brains.
As we age, different areas of the brain are more likely to call on each other for help. Perhaps this develops from necessity, but those we think of as creative seem to do it naturally. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show this ability lasts well into the 80s.
Myelination, laying down of fatty insulation along neurons, is a biological process that helps neural transmissions run smoothly. Scientists recently discovered that this process is not complete until young adulthood, when a person’s prefrontal cortex becomes fully developed. More surprisingly, though, researchers now know that the process can continue into our 50s and 60s. Kluger went on to say that we are continually eligible for new parts and repairs, but the key to getting in line for them is remaining mentally active. And creative pursuits are among the best ways of doing so.
CASALS AND SCHWEITZER
Norman Cousins included a chapter on creativity and longevity in his book “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” first published in 1983. In it, he profiled two creative geniuses who were friends with each other, cellist Pablo Casals and physician and musician Albert Schweitzer. Both were octogenarians when Cousins met them and “were fully creative — almost explosively so.”
Cousins described Casals’ daily routine as evidence of the power of creativity on the body as well as the mind. Nearing age 90, Casals looked like an old man when he started his day. He needed help getting dressed, was seriously stooped and walked with a shuffle. He had arthritis and emphysema.
But Cousins described Don Pablo’s physical transformation when he went to the piano to play Bach, which is how he started every day (he had learned several musical instruments before he started playing the cello).
“His entire body seemed fused with the music; it was no longer stiff and shrunken but supple and graceful and completely freed of its arthritic coils,” Cousins wrote. He observed that the positive physical effects of Casals being “caught up in his own creativity” were as pronounced as the negative effects of chronic stress.
Like his friend Casals, the great doctor Schweitzer was purposeful and creative to the end of his life at age 95. Cousins said Schweitzer once told his hospital staff, “I have no intention of dying so long as I can do things. And if I do things, there is no need to die. So I will live a long, long time.”
Both Casals and Schweitzer “were committed to personal undertakings that were of value to other human beings,” Cousins said.
Creativity and a creative approach to life are not limited to great artists, musicians and scientists. Because it is available to all of us who choose to look at life a little differently and try new things as we age, I want to greet the new year with some of your stories. Tell me about your creativity and how it is helping you age successfully. Tell me about yourself or about someone you know.
Email your stories to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Successful Aging appears on the third Tuesday of each month.
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