Want a Better Brain? Grab a Cello, a Paintbrush, or a Spatula

Brand-new creative activities lead to a sharper mind and a potentially longer life

Art does more than stimulate our senses and create beauty — it can boost brain power, too.

“The brain, like a muscle, benefits from vigorous use,” said Francine Toder, Ph.D., of Palo Alto, California, in a recent blog post. Toder is author of “The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist After Sixty.”

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“Nerve cells increase along with connections linking brain cells — reversing earlier scientific thinking. We know now there are some things we can do that really do boost brain functioning. Activities that involve newness, complexity, and problem solving, especially plentiful in the fine arts, serve as robust tonics for the aging brain, [which has been] validated by neuroscience research,” she wrote.

Following that advice, Toder took up the cello as she transitioned out of a psychology career. She is still playing and learning six years later.

Related: Strong at 81, He Credits Exercise With His Life

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Scientists and doctors often recommend mental exercise for the brain to maintain high-level functioning in the face of aging. But the arts also offer a unique challenges that can slow the aging process.

Less Stress and Depression, More Fun
Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne are widely recognized as “late bloomer” artists. Grandma Moses began painting in her late 70s.

A study by researchers from Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, stated that a new group of “superagers” is helping science learn more about how brains age. Superagers have areas of the brain that compare well to people ages 28 to 35, though their actual age is in the 60 to 80 range.

Many study participants were past typical retirement age, yet had memory and recall like people in their 20s, clearly indicating brain decline isn’t a given.

Many study participants were past typical retirement age, yet had memory and recall like people in their 20s, clearly indicating brain decline isn’t a given.

“From a strictly medical perspective, it is about preserving synapses,” said Dr. Abhishiek Sharma, a neurosurgeon in Scottsdale, Arizona. “So if a particular patient enjoys arts, it should conceptually be equivalent to science or math or any other discipline.”

The brain progresses in three key ways as it ages, said Sharma. Physically, it atrophies and gets smaller. Chemically, it loses synapses after the mid-20s. Biologically, the transmission of neurotransmitters remains unchanged. Focusing on active production of these neurotransmitters is something anyone can do to keep brain function high.

Related: Older Moms, Slower Aging

“Mental stimulation and physical activity release neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which keep the mind agile. Also, they decrease the likelihood of pseudodementia, or depression in the elderly,” he told LifeZette.

Other Easy Ways to ‘Mind the Mind’
Nutrition is also more important as we age, according to Dr. Stephen C. Schimpff of Catonsville, Maryland.

“Older individuals have a slowing of metabolism, which means less calories are needed, but the body absorbs less — so they should concentrate on nutrient-dense foods,” he noted.

He tells his patients to eat a lot of color-rich foods, such as green, yellow, and red vegetables, and to exercise 30 minutes five days per week, including weight-bearing activity twice a week. He also believes tobacco and stress should be limited, as they damage the brain.

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Besides physical maintenance, pursuing intellectual challenges throughout life, engaging socially, and having a sense of purpose are three additional recognized keys to sustaining brain function. A new artistic pursuit can satisfy all three.

Writing short stories; learning a new language or musical instrument; starting a hobby of photography, sculpture, or painting; and beginning a physical discipline like dance, yoga, or tai chi won’t simply keep the mind active — it will open up new avenues for new relationships, too.

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Change Up Daily Tasks 
You can also just get creative with everyday experiences. “Form the habit of ‘changing jobs’ every five years,” Dr. Murray Grossan of Cedars Sinai Center in Los Angeles, California, recommended. “Get into the habit of seeking new technologies to learn every few years. We know we can activate new brain connections. We restore speech when the speech center is damaged. A different part of the brain has changed to doing speech — so can a senior stimulate new brain activity.”

Try a constant flow of new information and challenges, said Grossan. “Try new restaurants, new food markets, new recipes, new styles,” he said. “Enhance your senses. Practice recognizing perfumes and cloth before you see the label. Creativity and practice develop mind changes and better ‘mind chemistry.'”

Pat Barone, MCC, is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.

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