Gene Cohen ’s prescription for a long and healthy life sounds like advice from the Poor Richard’s Almanac: If you want to reduce your chances of going senile, take up sculpting. To lower your odds of getting cancer, learn to play the piano. Want to fend off depression, diabetes and other debilitating illnesses? Write that novel you’ve always dreamed about.
Cohen, 63, isn’t being flippant or getting dotty himself. The renowned gerontologist, psychiatrist and director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center has done groundbreaking research on the links between creativity and health in later life. His findings are dramatically reshaping our understanding and expectations of the aging process.
This week, Cohen will give the keynote address at “Creativity in Later Life,” a symposium sponsored by the University of Vermont’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Cohen will present some of his latest findings, which challenge one of the most deeply held assumptions people have about aging — namely, that the older we get, the more our brains deteriorate and malfunction.
Cohen has found that mental decay is not an inevitable or irreversible outcome of the aging process. Quite the contrary, he was the first to recognize that certain physiological changes occur later in life that allow the left and right hemispheres of the brain to function together more harmoniously, a mental state he likens to “moving to all-wheel drive.” In fact, this mental power boost doesn’t just occur in spite of the aging process, he says, but because of it.
Moreover, as older folks begin to master creative endeavors, whether it’s quilting or quantum physics, Cohen’s research has shown that they tend to fare better both physically and psychologically — a finding consistent with the emerging field of “psychoneuroimmunology,” which explores the relationship between the mind and the immune system.
According to Cohen, as the brain masters new, mentally challenging skills, it actually boosts the immune system by spurring the production of T-cells, which ward off bacterial infections, as well as NK (or “natural killer”) cells, which attack cancer cells. As he put it, “Any activity that optimally uses both sides of the brain is metaphorically savored . . . It’s like chocolate for the brain.”
Such findings not only have important implications for specialties such as gerontology and oncology, but for society as a whole. Cohen makes a compelling case for why communities should invest in artistic programs for seniors: Not only do such programs improve elders’ quality of life, but they can also save on health-care costs for long-term services such as hospitals, nursing homes and home health aides.
Such ideas are likely to find a receptive audience in Vermont, which has the second-oldest population of any state in the country. About 80,000 people, or one in eight Vermonters, are now over the age of 65, according to economist Art Wolfe, who spoke at a recent conference at UVM, sponsored by AARP of Vermont, called “Can Vermont Afford to Grow Old?”
By 2030, according to Wolfe, that ratio is projected to increase to one in four people. This huge, upward age shift, he contended, compounded by a low fertility rate and a slow influx of new residents, will pose daunting challenges for Vermont’s work force, tax base and health-care system.
Cohen began to study aging more than 35 years ago during his training as a psychiatrist, when he was assigned to a rotation in a public housing project for older adults.
“My mentors and peers said, ‘Be prepared for a depressing experience,’” he recalled, “and it was anything but.” In those days, the prevailing attitude about the elderly among Cohen’s peers was based on the small percentage of people they saw in hospitals and nursing homes, rather than the vast majority who lived in the community.
“Many of the best and brightest in science up to the 1970s had the illusion that aging offered nothing, so why study it?” Cohen recalls. “By not studying it, they didn’t find anything, and by not finding anything, it perversely confirmed their illusions.”
One such “illusion” was the notion that deterioration of the brain was an inevitable and unalterable fact of old age. Another was the idea that people who get highly creative bursts of inspiration later in life — think Grandma Moses — were the exception rather than the rule.
Cohen began questioning that latter assumption after attending an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1980. The show, a half-century retrospective of American folk art, featured some 20 artists of major historic importance. As a gerontologist, Cohen quickly noticed a detail about the artists that had somehow escaped the attention of the show’s curators: Of the 20 featured artists, 16 of them didn’t do their most acclaimed work until after the age of 65, and 30 percent of those didn’t reach their artistic “mature phase” until after they turned 80.
For Cohen, this discovery seemed too important to ignore. And, the more he researched folk art, the more he realized that older artists dominated the field. “In that sense,” he said, “Grandma Moses was just one of a huge crowd.”
Since then, Cohen has written more than 150 publications on the subject of aging, including several recent books on the relationships between growing old and creativity. His own creative pursuits have included a career as an award-winning inventor of “intergenerational” board games designed to help seniors remain mentally challenged. His most recent, called “Making Memories Together,” is designed to help patients with dementia communicate more effectively with their families and caregivers.
Though Cohen’s research has implications beyond his own field of geriatrics, one of his main goals is to help older people reach their true potential. Seniors “are perhaps the most undertapped resource in this country,” he said, “and as they do better, there’s less burden on society.”