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New research by Concordia-Chicago faculty shows association between the arts and aging


Older adults who frequently attended live performances of a concert, play or musical showed slower cognitive decline compared to those who never attended any performing arts, according to a study by Dr. Rekha S. Rajan, visiting associate professor of research at Concordia University Chicago. The study was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Kumar Bharat Rajan, associate professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center, and is funded by a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant through 2017. The results will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Aging and Health (JAH).

The study analyzes existing data of 5,567 older adults from the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP), a longitudinal study of African-American and white American adults over age 65. Dr. Denis Evans of Rush University Medical Center provided the data from CHAP, and Dr. Lydia Manning, associate professor of gerontology at CUC, is also assisting with the study.

Adults in the study were asked how often they attended a live performance, and then were tested on memory recall, perceptual speed and global cognition. The results showed that frequent performance attendance, a form of passive arts participation, was associated with slower decline in composite cognitive function.

“The original CHAP study was about 20 years long, and the average follow up was about 10 years, so it was a large longitudinal study,” said Dr. Kumar Rajan. “We looked to see if there were any racial or ethnic differences, and we found none, so it’s more global than we expected.”

The $10,000 award received from the NEA is the largest amount available for research of this type, and was matched by Concordia University Chicago at the $10,000 level.

“The idea that older adults can go see concerts, plays or musicals, and have a chance of slowing their cognitive decline later, is really exciting,” said Dr. Rekha Rajan, whose background includes a doctorate in music education from Teachers College, Columbia University. “To support healthy aging practices, we argue for making the arts more accessible to older populations, who maybe cannot travel because of physical limitations.”

Rajan added that having a large sample of 5,567 people to analyze was invaluable and unique within arts research, where studies are typically smaller and observational, and can lack strong statistics. The interdisciplinary team of researchers was also a strength of this project.

The researchers hope to set up a hypothesis that can be tested further, so that their findings about performing arts attendance and aging can be used in translational research to perform clinical trials or intervention studies in the future. In year two of this project, Dr. Kumar Rajan and Dr. Rekha Rajan plan to investigate how attending a live, performing arts event may be associated with blood pressure and cognitive decline.