When COVID-19 dimmed the stage lights on the Young@Heart seniors’ choir, the singers didn’t retreat into silence.

The Massachusetts choral group (minimum age requirement 75) has toured the world and starred in a 2008 documentary. But the pandemic put its 2020 holiday concert in jeopardy. So Young@Heart live streamed the show instead. Each singer performed their parts from home online, belting out hits like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

The lyrics of that rock anthem were especially fitting for the times: 

We’re not gonna take it

No, we ain’t gonna take it

We’re not gonna take it anymore!

Young@Heart’s members aren’t just standing up to COVID by seeking physically distanced solace in song. By filling their lives with music, they’re also nurturing their physical and mental health as they age.

Arts and aging 

A groundbreaking 2006 study suggests art and culture are good for the body, mind and spirit of older adults.

In the experiment, 150 seniors aged 65 to 100 took part in community arts programs like music, painting, dance, drama and pottery for a two-year period. Compared to a control group, these seniors: 

  • Made fewer doctor visits
  • Used fewer prescription drugs
  • Used fewer over-the-counter medications
  • Suffered fewer falls 

In terms of mood and mental health, the seniors who participated in arts programs also reported:

  • Higher morale 
  • Improved depression symptoms
  • Less loneliness 

For brain health

Can arts and cultural activities actually improve cognitive performance in older adults?

Yes, according to a 2017 study that tracked the health of 1,498 Americans aged 55-plus for a 15-year period. Seniors who created art and attended arts events scored seven-fold higher on cognitive function tests than those who did not partake in those activities. 

The art participants also saw improvements in their bodies, recording lower rates of hypertension and better physical functioning overall than the control group.

The sound of music

Remember Oliver Sacks, who inspired the movie Awakenings? In real life, the late neurologist witnessed the powerful impact of music on Parkinson’s patients who had lost the ability to move or speak.

In the presence of music “they could be transformed,” Dr. Sacks told NPR back in 2009. “If there’s music, these people could dance, they could sing, they could talk, they can do things.”

Clinical research has also shown that: 

  • On fMRI scans, music activates parts of the brain involved in memory, emotion and physical movement — areas of function that commonly decline with age
  • Singing or listening to music can improve the general cognition, attention and memory recall of seniors with dementia
  • Taking music lessons late in life can increase neuroplasticity in older adults, and aid their ability to recognize speech in noisy environments

The artful Rx

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it might do wonders for the aging brain and body as well. 

According to research cited by the British government, seniors who create artworks on a regular basis exhibit:

  • Greater functional connectivity in the brain
  • Reduced stress levels
  • Increased psychological resilience 

Further, a 2019 study from ‘down under’ suggests you can bolster your brain power through art without lifting a paint brush. After a six-week program of visits to the National Gallery of Australia, a group of seniors with dementia showed improvements in their depression symptoms, verbal fluency and immediate memory recall.

In Ontario, Quebec and the UK, physicians have actually prescribed visits to galleries and museums for patients with depression, Alzheimer’s and heart conditions.

Books for brain health

You don’t have to write books to help your brain age gracefully. Reading them packs a cognitive punch of its own.

When researchers surveyed 300 elderly people over a six-year period, bookworms reported 30 per cent less memory decline than non-readers. After the participants passed away, autopsies found no neural tangles or lesions (common markers of memory loss) in the brains of the avid readers.

Like the Young@Heart choir, Toronto seniors can still find their creative voice during the pandemic. The Bright Spot offers a variety of activities, including Music with the TSO, Book Club and Art for Personal Wellness, so you can get your creative juices flowing from the comfort of your home.