Elmhurst College faculty members Helga and Tony Noice were invited by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences to take part in a public workshop that explored how the health and well-being of older adults can benefit from participating in the arts.
The workshop, which took place on Friday, September 14, in Washington, D.C., featured leading neuroscientists, psychologists and researchers, as well as practitioners in health and the arts. They presented findings from their research on the arts and aging, with the goal of helping the NIH and NEA to pinpoint potential opportunities for future research.
The Noices, who for more than two decades have researched the use of theater arts to enhance healthy cognitive aging in older adults, talked about their latest project during a presentation on how arts programs for older adults affect brain function.
Other workshop topics included how the design of long-term care facilities affects residents’ quality of life; how art therapy compares with other treatments for older adults with cognitive decline; and a cost-benefit analysis of incorporating the arts in health-care programs for older adults.
The Noices were the only researchers from a small liberal arts college in attendance; others came from Harvard University, Northwestern University, Yale University, Brandeis University, UCLA and George Mason University.
The Noices recently were awarded a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that has enabled them to conduct a study that, for the first time, incorporates brain scans into their research. The scans are allowing the Noices to measure and identify exactly how the learning of acting techniques might slow down or even reverse the negative effects of aging on the brain.
The NIH grant, awarded last spring, was the fifth for Helga Noice, a professor of psychology at Elmhurst College, and her husband, Tony Noice, who teaches theater in the College’s Department of Communication Arts and Sciences.
The study is being conducted with researchers from the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. In the study, participants receive brain scans before and after taking part in “interventions” that involve the theater arts. During the interventions, some of the participants receive actual theater training. Other participants read and discuss plays or learn about the art of acting, but receive no training.
“The question we hope to answer is, do you need the actor’s experience—specifically, active involvement in the acting process—to obtain positive cognitive benefits?” Helga Noice says.
The Noices have long held the answer to be yes. “We know that stimulating activities make the brain work more efficiently, and an acting class provides just the right kind of stimulation,” Helga Noice says. “Acting takes advantage of the hallmarks of stimulating activities, including novelty and a socially supportive environment.”
The workshop in Washington was the latest project of the NEA's Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development, an alliance of 14 federal agencies and departments whose goal is to encourage more and better research on how the arts help people reach their full potential at all stages of life.