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Are You Art Smart?

Are You Art Smart?

By Nancy Bruning, MPH

Color your world.
Color your world.

Would you like to improve your memory? Interested in gaining ever more mental might?

Would you believe that exercising your art muscles might be as important as getting physical exercise?

That’s what a new study indicates.

The study cited in science journal Neurology lasted four years and found that older seniors who were engaged in art were 73% less likely to experience a decline in brain power than those who did not include art in their lives. The arts, including painting, drawing, and sculpting, outdid crafts such as woodworking and quilting, which were associated with a lesser reduction of 45% in cognitive decline. Computer use and social activity cut brain power loss in half – a good margin, yes, but still not as high as art.

The researchers speculate that art may increase the brain’s resilience. How? One possibility they point to is that the working within artistic mediums increases growth factors needed for brain health. Other researchers have pointed out that physical exercise also may work similarly stave off mental decline.


What Art Can Do for You

This artist approves.
This artist approves.

The latest study reinforces what earlier studies have hinted at, and confirms findings from a report issued by the Summit on Creativity and Aging in America. Held on May 18th last year at the National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, the conference released a report by Edwin Walker, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aging which stated, in part: “We know the value of music, dance, theater, visual arts, poetry, and storytelling, for example. We know the value to the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social well-being of older adults. Research really is showing that creative engagement programs result in better health, fewer falls, reduced hip damage, fewer doctor visits, and diminished visual problems.”

Local Efforts

Art classes geared towards adults in which you paint or draw outdoors offer even more value as nature can offer its own perspective and relaxation. The added power of fusing the two got me thinking: what if we combined art and nature with physical activity?

And so with my “Sketch & Stretch” classes, I sought to create sessions that combine art, sketching, and nature. We draw flowers, trees, plants and each other, in yoga and dance poses. We also add walking within a nearby park to experience and draw nature directly. It’s a way to combine a love of movement and a need for nature, and to dust off my decades-old undergraduate degree in art.

Being outdoors offers a different perspective.
Being outdoors offers a different perspective.

Margaret, age 69 “and holding,” as she puts it, has taken both my regular outdoor Nancercize fitness classes and Sketch and Stretch classes. She finds it’s a playful way to stretch her mind and body while satisfying her creative urge. She says, “It’s really helpful for both thinking and relaxing. It’s good for anyone at any level, and when we get stuck or frustrated, we’re given other ideas to think about.”

Consider as well that many accomplished artists work well into the later part of their lives; it’s about continuing to pursue their passions and keeping actively engaged in the world around them. Today, anyone can make art—at senior centers, libraries, local Y sites and even park recreation centers.

One suggestion: go beyond the current trend for store-bought coloring books—and color art that is your own. And whichever your medium, keep flexing your art might as avidly as your muscles.



Please note: many classes are free and supply materials.


  • SU-CASA Classes

You don’t have to stay inside the lines.
You don’t have to stay inside the lines.

SU-CASA is a community arts engagement program that places artists and organizations in residence at senior centers across the five boroughs. The program supports 101 residencies at senior centers across the city’s 51 Council districts, with 20 of those residencies based in Manhattan.SU-CASA is a collaboration among the New York City Council, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department for the Aging and the City’s five local arts councils.

To register and for additional information, please send an email to or call 419.962.6292.


Mondays and Wednesdays – 1-2:30 p.m.

ARC Senior Center, 4111 Broadway (enter on 174th Street)

Tuesdays and Thursdays – 1-2:30 p.m.

UBA Senior Center, 1970 Amsterdam Avenue (enter on 157th Street)



  • Get Healthy Heights


  • Cultural Guide for Seniors


  • Senior Planet

Nancy Bruning, BA, MPH

Urban Health Writer/Editor/Advocate

Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist (PAPHS)

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