ever assume your best work is behind you. Creativity often
peaks in our later years
By Karen Springen
and Sam Seibert
17 issue - On his desk at the University of Kentucky,
Prof. David Snowdon displays an artistic treasure: a ceramic
sculpture of Santa Claus perched atop a John Deere tractor.
The artist, Sister Esther Boor, gave it to him before
her death in 2002. At 107, she was the oldest participant
in the research project Snowdon directs, the university's
groundbreaking Nun Study. Since its start in 1986, the
program has investigated the relationship between aging
and Alzheimer's disease by tracking the health of 678
Roman Catholic nuns over 70. Sister Esther took up ceramics
after she retired at 97. Snowdon cherishes her reply on
first being asked to join the project: "She said
she was too busy to be in a study of old people."
Snowdon still isn't sure what kept Sister Esther so vibrant
for so many years. But the secret of her kind of sustained
creative energy is an increasingly valuable one. People
are living longer lives than ever before. What matters
now is to make those extra years more fulfilling—and
it can be done. Researchers who investigate longevity
are discovering that old age can be a peak period for
creativity. "We always think of winding down in old
age," says Judith Salerno, deputy director of the
National Institute on Aging. "We need to begin thinking
about late life as an opportunity for people to explore."
Oldsters may not be as quick or prolific as they were
in their 20s, but experience is a rich resource. Those
who learn to tap it as they grow older can accomplish
amazing things and sometimes develop talents they never
There's no shortage of precedents, great and small. Some
have been classic late bloomers. Laura Ingalls Wilder
was in her 50s and 60s when she wrote her "Little
House" books. Anna (Grandma Moses) Robertson sold
her first paintings to a collector at 79—and kept
at it for the next two decades. Others went on blooming
long after their expected season. I. M. Pei designed Cleveland's
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum in his 70s, and Frank
Lloyd Wright died at 91 building his final monument, the
Guggenheim Museum. Still others, like Franz Joseph Haydn
and Ludwig von Beethoven, found ways to redouble their
inspiration as they entered their final years.
No one denies that age has
costs. A healthy adult's brain contains approximately
100 billion neurons (nerve cells), some of which die off
with age. "For all of us, there's undoubtedly a very
slow degeneration," says neurologist Arnold Scheibel,
turning 82 on Jan. 18 and still hard at work at UCLA.
The loss is drastic in people with Alzheimer's, but no
big deal in healthy individuals. And other parts of the
brain actually keep developing as we get older—particularly
if we give them plenty of exercise. "Over time, and
especially with challenge, brain cells sprout new projections
called dendrites," says Dr. Gene Cohen, author of
"The Creative Age" and director of the Center
on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University.
Dendrites flourish in the brain's critical information-processing
sector throughout our 50s, 60s and 70s.
Despite the gain in dendrites, mental processes tend to
lag. "Your reaction time slows down with age,"
says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the
University of California, Davis. "Forget it if you
want to take up tennis in your 50s and become a world-class
player. But creating things is not a speed test."
Still, some mental pursuits do make it easier than others
for young minds to excel. "Different fields require
different amounts of expertise," says Simonton. "In
fields that are very abstract and very finite, like higher
mathematics, you can make a contribution earlier."
For those who like scientific definitions,
creativity is an exasperatingly slippery concept. Scheibel
explains the process as "the putting together of
familiar information in an unusual way." Nevertheless,
the seemingly simple idea covers a range of mental tasks,
all of them valuable. Researchers sometimes measure creativity
by seeing how many different ways a subject can devise
to use a paper clip, say, or a toothpick. "If you
look at people's performance on those tests, it tends
to increase until around 40 years old, and then it starts
to decline," says Simonton. "But if you look
at something called practical creativity—solving
everyday problems you have in life—that peaks later."
Sometimes much later, as in the case of Ben Franklin,
who at 78 invented the world's first bifocals for himself.
No one has figured out yet exactly how the brain handles
these feats. At UCLA, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
may be giving at least some clues into the nature of sudden
insights. Subjects are asked to solve simple anagrams.
The answers may come in a flash ("Aha!") or
slowly, by methodical examination of the different possibilities.
The Aha! answers are associated with bursts of activity
in the brain's right temporal lobe. "This region
seems to connect information of various kinds," says
neurologist Marco Iacoboni, one of the scientists conducting
the study. And making fresh connections is an essential
part of creativity.
But fireworks aren't everything. Sometimes
inspiration comes slowly and quietly. Depending on the
idea, Cohen says, different parts of the brain may dominate.
The right hemisphere is typically more involved in visual
tasks, and the left brain does more verbal work. Many
creative concepts need both halves, as well as the hippocampus,
a part of the brain that specializes in information processing
and recall. Cohen suspects that these various parts of
the brain are at high alert during periods of creative
Advancing years can actually help that process
along. The kids leave home, and a pension can make it
easier to quit your day job. "There's a freedom in
being older," says veteran radio producer Connie
Goldman, 73, author of "Secrets of Becoming a Late
Bloomer" and "The Ageless Spirit." "Teenagers
like to all be alike and all dress alike. As we get older,
we're more individuals. We're ready to be who we are."
Salerno agrees. "In a sense there's less to lose
by trying things in late life," she says. "You
don't have to be bothered with what other people think."
Growing up can be a relief. Gail Carson Levine was closing
in on 50 when she published her first book, "Ella
Enchanted," earning one of the most prestigious prizes
in children's literature, a Newbery Honor. Now 57, she
doubts she could have written such a life-affirming book
in her younger years. "Adolescents can be very dark,"
she says. "That wears off only slowly."
Age doesn't always bring wisdom. "If
you want to be a rigid old coot, you can do it,"
says University of Utah psychologist Monisha Pasupathi.
But it's far from inevitable, she adds: "There's
this myth that old people are rigid." And a growing
body of research suggests that creative activity can actually
help keep you healthy. For the last three years Cohen
has been conducting a study of 300 senior citizens. Half
are participating in community-based arts programs while
the others serve as a control group. The members of the
arts group make fewer visits to the doctor, fall less
often, use less medication and are less likely to be depressed
than the controls. Why? "You have a personal sense
of mastery," says Cohen. Other studies have shown
Scientists are gradually unlocking the
secrets of staying mentally vigorous. Marian Diamond,
a 78-year-old professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley,
lists five essentials: diet, exercise, challenge, novelty
and love. Nutrition's importance is obvious. Exercise
is likewise vital to the cardiovascular and respiratory
systems that keep the brain going. Experiments show that
lab rats' brains grow larger and sharper when they get
new mazes to solve and a variety of toys to play with.
And they live longer—as long as 900 days instead
of 600 days—if the scientist (or a graduate assistant)
keeps them stimulated. People ask Diamond why she hasn't
retired. "Why would I?" she answers. This year,
736 students signed up for her general human anatomy class.
Chuck Close doesn't need to be told about challenges.
One of the acknowledged masters of contemporary American
art at 64, he worries about falling into a rut. "Ease
is the greatest enemy of the artist—when you get
good at something and just keep cranking it out,"
he says. "The hard thing is to keep yourself in a
little bit of trouble." He might seem to have had
more trouble than anyone needs without looking for it.
At 50 he was hospitalized with a blood clot that initially
left him paralyzed from the neck down. In effect he had
to learn his craft all over. "I don't think I'm doing
work drastically different than if this hadn't happened
to me," he says. "I work very slowly. I make
three paintings a year." He admires the way Matisse,
Picasso and de Kooning continued to evolve as they grew
older. "Otherwise you have to be lucky and die early,
like Pollock." What about his own art? "I hope
I'm making some of my best work now, but I'm not done
yet," he says. "Call me back when I'm 89."
It's a date.
Original source: http://msnbc.msn.com