10/17/2011 06:48 pm ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

Art for Life's Sake

The Foundation for Art and Health and the Medical Humanities Department of Sydney University in Sydney, Australia hosted a symposium last week aimed at developing a research agenda exploring "the commonalities that can strengthen" the practice of art therapy while "exploring the diversity of methodologies, the sector's research needs."

The Foundation's and the University's mission is " to promote and expand the knowledge and evidence of these benefits in order to increase arts practices in health settings and so improve the health of all Australians." They both believe "there is increasing evidence that participation in creative activities directly improves the health and well-being of individuals and communities."

Dr. James Aw, medical director of a leading private health clinic in Toronto, has found that after years of caring for elderly patents "that a relationship exists between culture and good health." Art for life's sake" is the name of an article written by Aw in the National Post, a Canadian Newspaper.

He could not prove his theory but said:

The most vital and vigorous octogenarians in my practice tend to be ardent aficionados of the arts -- or have hobbies that tap into a creative aspect of their personality. Some are expressing their artistic side by painting, creating music, making crafts or engaging in photography. Others are cultivating an appreciation for the arts by attending concerts, theatre performances, film festivals or art galleries.

As we learn more about longevity and the important role the arts play in our lives, we are increasingly finding the arts -- whether performing or painting or going to galleries and museums -- make us live longer. And occasionally, living more meaningful and productive, certainly more enjoyable, lives.

In San Francisco, Amy Gorman began talking to 12 women aged 85-105 -- all-visual and performing artists -- who inspired a book called Aging Artfully. It is about these women but "also about promoting positive healthy aging... and involvement with the creative arts in retirement years."

Gorman asks rhetorically, "Do these elders energize themselves through their art, craft and musicianship? Whatever their degree of talent, or their creative process, each embraces a daily routine in which their special art form is an essential part. Each woman is spirited and resilient -- interpreting for herself a life worth living to the end." The women's lives, she believes, are full of joy and optimism. But, why?

Testament to the power of the arts, perhaps.

Most of the evidence of the health benefits of the arts is anecdotal. For this reason many associations of therapists around the world are doing their homework to show that the anecdotes are real. In the U.K. for example, an Art Therapy Practice Research Network has been established for art therapists to "collaborate on practice-led research and evaluation ventures."

Here in the U.S. there are many organizations with the mission of supporting the role of the arts and health care, therapy or aging. The leading advocate for the arts, American for the Arts (AFTA), says:

Increasingly, the arts are being integrated into a variety of healthcare settings. Across the country, arts programming is serving patients, healthcare professionals, and larger communities. In patient care, the arts are providing unique therapeutic benefits and promoting holistic treatment.

It cites Arts for the Aging and the Koop program for Healing at Dartmouth as a few organizations leading the way.