Aging and addiction prevention

How can you keep the brain growing and avoid negative patterns as you age? A “How To” article from Dr. Louise Stanger provides practical answers here.

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Ouch! My Brain Is Growing: Aging and Creativity

In my recent article on substance abuse and mental health disorders and aging it became quite clear that there is a lot of ageism and the desire not to address aging and Substance Abuse in the United States. Youth, glorious youth, is elevated to mega proportions and left to undulate before our eyes while aging is hidden in the closet. Comments such as:

“She’s too old for us to do anything about her drinking.”

“That’s just the way grandpa/grandma is…”

…lead us astray.

Today, I urge you not to throw grandmother under the bus; rather to take a look at how creativity bring life blood to the aging process.

We are destined for creative growth!

The transition from seeing negative changes in aging as a part of one’s destiny to the new concept that there are modifiable age-associated problems was introduced in the last quarter of the century. This remains a novel idea as it was not until 1975 that the National Institute of Mental Health established its first research center on aging and the Veterans Association launched its Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Centers program (GRECC).

Strangely enough, when older people are recognized for psychological growth, they are regarded as exceptions to the rule – as if creativity and outstanding performance were not significant parts of aging.

According to George Washington University gerontologist Gene Cohen, it is simply not true that aging people lose creativity. He maintains that if one focuses not only on clinical problems but also on the individual potential of the person that this will be the ultimate art and creativity of medicine and health care. Hence, one has to have an individual-centered approach that emphasizes strengths and skills and satisfaction – activities that bring satisfying or pleasurable feeling. Moreover, research has demonstrated that using the arts has been a successful medium for increasing the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Keeping an open mind helps us age better

While much of the research has focused on work with patients identified with early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s, there is convincing evidence to support keeping an open mind to help your brain age successfully.

And the arts do just that.

Researchers Susan McFadden and Anne Basting point out that, “What’s good for the person is usually good for the brain.” Therefore, a cognitively active individual is vital for long term physical engagement out in the world. Even Facebook and Instagram, as annoying as they may seem at times, keeps one’s brain cells active. The connections keep us going.

Moreover, tasks that rely on integrating, analyzing and supervising others stave off loss of intelligence. Leisure activities can accomplish the same end results. Examples of these activities include:

  • playing card games
  • Scrabble
  • Bridge
  • Soul Cycle
  • playing an instrument
  • dancing
  • taking a walk around your neighborhood

Staying flexible helps us age better

A flexible mind is another key ingredient to successful aging. Warner Schale and Sherry Willis discovered through the Seattle Longitudinal Study of Aging that over time a flexible mental attitude was the most important ingredient to staving off intellectual declines amongst people well into their 70s and 80s. The ability to shift mental focus necessary for creativity are associated with the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

An interesting study done by Angelia Sutin looked at openness in the brain and discovered for men, openness related to the activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (involved in automatic body functions such as blood pressure and heart rate). For women, openness related to the prefrontal cortex activation (involved in decision making and personality expression). Thus the brains of individuals with a creative disposition may differ.

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 Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Verdi, Picasso and Grandma Moses maintain such vitality in their older life. One of the key findings by Italian researcher Antonini for a nimble aging mind was the ability to:

  • seek new goals
  • not dwell on past accomplishments
  • maintain curiosity
  • keep up with the times
  • adapt to changing circumstances

Find ways to stay creative!

“But you don’t have to be creative with a capital C in order to maintain creativity,” says researcher, Susan Whitborne. There are so many forms of expression from handwriting a letter, writing a silly poem, sharing a recipe, volunteering, or even writing a personal narrative of your life like I did with my book Falling Up: A Memoir of Renewal. These activities can aid in the process of coming to grips and overcoming life’s challenges.

Volunteering can also be a form of expression. At the San Diego aerospace museum, for example, there is a cadre of senior citizens who volunteer putting together airplanes and recording history. Together the group is a cornucopia of information. Coming together as a group – even those few in motorized chairs – gives them the opportunity for connection and creativity.

The famed human behavior theoretician Erik Erikson talked about “generativity”. He believed that in order to have basic trust in the world you have to have older, more experienced folks around who have ego integrity. These are folks who have been able to come to grips with their lives, their challenges, and know that the world can be ok in spite of or because they experience life challenges .They provide a platform for others and serve as role models to younger generations.

So next time you think about not getting Grandmother or Grandfather treatment for addiction issues – think again!

Here’s a few in folks in our field who continually make a difference. Feel free to add to the list!

Roz & Richie Annenberg
Claudia Black
Stephanie Brown
Lenard Bushnel
Jeff Jay
Debra Jay
Judith Landau
Rockelle Lerner
Jerry McDonald
Patricia Rosen
Ed& Mary Ann Spatola
Louise Stanger
John Southworth
Ed Storti
Carol Teitelebaum

YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD– Here’s a list
At 60, playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw finished writing “Heartbreak House,” regarded by many as his masterpiece.
At 61, Charles Cagniard de la Tour, a French doctor, demonstrated that fermentation depends upon yeast cells.
At 62, J.R.R. Tolkien published the first volume of his fantasy series, “Lord of the Rings.”
At 63, John Dryden undertook the enormous task of translating the entire works of Virgil into English verse.
At 64, Thomas Bowdler “bowdlerized” Shakespeare’s works, making them “family friendly.”
At 65, jazz musician Miles Davis defiantly performed his final live album, just weeks before he died.
At 66, Noah Webster completed his monumental “American Dictionary of the English Language.”
At 67, Simeon Poisson discovered the laws of probability after studying the likelihood of death from mule kicks in the French army.
At 68, the English experimentalist Sir William Crookes began investigating radioactivity and invented a device for detecting alpha particles.
At 69, Canadian Ed Whitlock of Milton, Ontario, Canada, became the oldest person to run a standard marathon in under three hours (2:52:47).
At 70, Cornelius Vanderbilt began buying railroads.
At 71, Katsusuke Yanagisawa, a retired Japanese schoolteacher, became the oldest person to climb Mt. Everest.
At 72, Margaret Ringenberg flew around the world.
At 73, Larry King celebrated his 50th year in broadcasting.
At 74, Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps began an attempt to construct the Suez Canal.
At 75, cancer survivor Barbara Hillary became one of the oldest people, and the first black woman, to reach the North Pole.
At 76, Arthur Miller unveiled a bold new play, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” free of the world-weary tone of his previous works.
At 77, John Glenn became the oldest person to go into space.
At 78, Chevalier de Lamarck proposed a new theory of the evolutionary process, claiming that acquired characteristics can be transmitted to offspring.
At 79, Asa Long became the oldest U.S. checkers champion.
At 80, Christine Brown of Laguna Hills, CA, flew to China and climbed the Great Wall.
At 81, Bill Painter became the oldest person to reach the 14,411-foot summit of Mt. Rainier.
At 82, William Ivy Baldwin became the oldest tightrope walker, crossing the South Boulder Canyon in Colorado on a 320-foot wire.
At 83, famed baby doctor Benjamin Spock championed for world peace.
At 84, W. Somerset Maugham wrote “Points of View.”
At 85, Theodor Mommsen became the oldest person to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature.
At 86, Katherine Pelton swam the 200-meter butterfly in 3 minutes, 1.14 seconds, beating the men’s world record for that age group by over 20 seconds.
At 87, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor.
At 88, Michelangelo created the architectural plans for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
At 89, Arthur Rubinstein performed one of his greatest recitals in Carnegie Hall.
At 90, Marc Chagall became the first living artist to be exhibited at the Louvre museum.
At 91, Allan Stewart of New South Wales completed a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of New England.
At 92, Paul Spangler finished his 14th marathon.
At 93, P.G. Wodehouse worked on his 97th novel, was knighted and died.
At 94, comedian George Burns performed in Schenectady, NY, 63 years after his first performance there.
At 95, Nola Ochs became the oldest person to receive a college diploma.
At 96, Harry Bernstein published his first book, “The Invisible Wall,” three years after he started writing to cope with loneliness after his wife of 70 years, Ruby, passed away.
At 97, Martin Miller was still working fulltime as a lobbyist on behalf of benefits for seniors.
At 98, Beatrice Wood, a ceramist, exhibited her latest work.
At 99, Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fuji.
At 100, Frank Schearer seems to be the oldest active water skier in the world.


Reference Sources: Antonini, FM. Magnolfi, S. U. , Petruzzi P., Malentacchi, I etal (2008) Physical Performance and Creative Activities of centurions . Archives of Gerentology and Geriatrics. 46.253-261
Cohen, Gene : Research on Creativity and Aging: The Positive Impact of the Arts on Health and Illness ,2006. The American Society on Aging, San Francisco, Ca
Erikson, Erik. The Life Cycle Completed, Extended Version (1982). Norton and Company, New York, New York.
Frittsch, Thomas; Jung Kwak; Grant Stacey, Lang, Josh; Rhonda R; Bastings Anne D. (2009) Impact of Time Slips, A Creative Expression Intervention Program on Nursing Home Patients with Dementia and their Caregivers.” Gerontolgists, Feb.49.1.117-127
McFadden,S. H. & Bastings A.D. (2010) . Heathy aging persons and their brains promoting resilence through creative engagement. Clinical Geriatric Medicine 26, 149-161
McFadden,S. H. & Bastings A.D. (2010) .Promoting Resilience Through Creative Engagement . (Psychology today The Moma Project.)
Phillips, Lorraine J; Reid-Arndt , Stephanie A; Youngju Park (2010. “Effects of A Creative Expression Intervention on Emotions, Communication and Quality of Life in Persons with Dementia’. Nursing Research, Nov/Dec, 59.6, 417-425
Stanger, Louise, Falling Up-A Memoir of Renewal. (2015) Wzy Press, Ca.
Waldschmidt ,Daniel E, Edgy Conversations.( 2014) Next Century Publications.
Whitbourne, Susan, Fullfillment at Any Age(2010) Psychology Today.
About the author
Louise Stanger, Ed.D. is a clinical social worker LCSW and Certified Intervention Professional CIP with over 35 years experience in substance abuse and mental health disorders, grief and loss. She has been a university educator (SDSU & USD) and researcher. She is active in the Network of Independent Interventionist and Association of Intervention Specialists and is also a Motivational Interviewing Trainer of Trainers. More at All About Interventions .
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