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Creativity and Successful Brain Aging: Going With the Flow

Creativity and flexible attitudes can promote healthy brain aging.

Scholars have suspected for decades that the aging process is kinder to the creative, active, and flexible mind. Now there is more convincing evidence than ever before to support the importance of keeping an open mind to helping your brain age successfully.

In a recent scientific article, psychologists Susan McFadden and Anne Basting point out that "What's good for the person is usually good for the brain." They note that the more diverse the older person's social network, the greater the resistance to infection and disease, and the less the cognitive decline. It's not just the plain fact that you have many friends, but that if you have many friends, the chances are good that you are engaging in a variety of cognitively enriching activities. Even Facebook offers cognitive stimulation. Sure, you may get fed up with the 29th comment on the day's weather from people complaining it's too cold or reveling that it's a warm spring day, but even this virtual set of friendship connections is keeping your brain cells if not your fingers clicking.

Friendships are one way to keep your brain and body functioning in top form, but leisure activities are another. One of the most fascinating studies I ever read was published some years ago in which scientists found that cognitively engaging work activities (tasks that rely on integrating, analyzing, and supervising others) helped stave off the loss of intelligence through midlife. Now it turns out that leisure activities can accomplish the same end result. Playing musical instruments, chess, bridge, and dancing are just some of the types of cognitively and physically engaging activities that can keep your brain alert and well-tuned well into your later years.

The third element to the equation of healthy brain aging is the flexible mind. Here's where we get to creativity. Another tried and true finding in the psychology of aging came from the Seattle Longitudinal Study carried out by Warner Schaie and Sherry Willis. They came to the amazing discovery that over time a flexible mental attitude was one of the most important ingredients to staving off intellectual declines among people well into their 70s and 80s.

Working memory, attention, the ability to shift mental focus, necessary operations for creativity, are associated with the high functioning of two important parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Based on the idea that the personality trait of openness to experience would be related to cognitive flexibility, a team of researchers led by Angelina Sutin studied the correlation between brain activation and scores on this measure among older men and women tested two years apart. They found that for men, higher openness scores were related to activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (involved in monitoring processes). Prefrontal activation (reflecting flexibility) was related to women’s openness scores, and for both sexes. Thus, the brains of individuals who may be more creative dispositionally may differ in important ways.

Openness to new ideas and a flexible attitude toward change are the essence of creativity. Perhaps it is for this reason that creative artists and musicians such as Picasso, Verdi, and Tony Bennett (who I covered in my "Age Busters" blog posting) maintain their youthful vitality until so late in life. Analyzing the lives of a set of six highly creative older adults (including Grandma Moses), Italian researcher Antonini and colleagues in 2008 identified a passionate commitment to the pursuit of their discipline as the common thread. These creative elders also shared the trait of flexibility or plasticity and rather than dwell on their accomplishments of the past, looked forward to new goals and new creative enterprises. They maintained their curiosity and, similar to the quality of openness to experience, were able to keep up with their times and adapt to changing circumstances.

But you don't have to be creative with a capital "C" to keep your brain healthy and vital. There are many forms of creativity. Writing a silly poem to celebrate a friend's birthday, coming up with a new variation on an old family recipe-- all of these are ways to express yourself and allow yourself to exert a bit of free-wheeling thinking and doing. McFadden and Basting talk about "creative engagement" and suggest that it's a great way to enlist the parts of your brain that can benefit from mental exercise.

Another form of creative expression is constructing a personal narrative of your life. As you navigate through life, you are constantly writing and rewriting your own unique story. This process may involve coming to grips with the recognition of how constraints of various forms such as educational opportunities, health challenges, and relationships with others affected your ability to realize your hopes and dreams of youth. Amazingly, the majority of older adults are able to transcend these challenges and arrive at a personal sense of meaning in life that rises above the boundaries of culture, place, and time. With luck and an open mind, you too can overcome the challenges that face you and enjoy the pleasures of a creative life and a healthy brain.

Check the interactive resources on my website, The Search for Fulfillment. You can learn more about ways to maximize your mental and physical health throughout your life.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010


Antonini, F. M., Magnolfi, S. U., Petruzzi, E., Pinzani, P., Malentacchi, F., Petruzzi, I., et al. (2008). Physical performance and creative activities of centenarians. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 46, 253-261.

McFadden, S. H., & Basting, A. D. (2010). Healthy aging persons and their brains: promoting resilience through creative engagement. Clin Geriatr Med, 26, 149-161.

Sutin, A. R., Beason-Held, L. L., Resnick, S. M., & Costa, P. T. (2009). Sex differences in resting-state neural correlates of openness to experience among older adults. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 2797-2802.

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