There are countless Ways to Age Well, from a daily walk to volunteering for a good cause to practicing meditation. Pursuing creative arts seems to hold multiple impressive benefits for your brain and mood. Take the art of quilting: research published in the Journal of Public Health showed that making quilts helps people’s cognitive, creative and emotional well-being, particularly among older adults.
While you’re engaged in doing something you love, your brain is saturated with the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, known as “the happy chemicals.” This reaction is especially powerful when you’re creating something using your hands. One researcher pointed out that quilting complements these conditions perfectly.
A Craft Requiring Constant Learning
George and Gloria Magee, residents of Splendido, an all-inclusive community for those 55 and better in Tucson, are master quilters who have won many awards for their work. They enjoy quilting immensely, and know that it’s good for their brains because it is endlessly challenging. “You’re constantly learning; I think that’s why I like it,” says Gloria. “You may learn about angles on one quilt and curves on another. I don’t ever want to repeat a quilt pattern; I want to move on and try something different.”
Her husband agrees, saying “We both went to a weeklong class in California to learn appliqué. That’s not my favorite thing, but it was fun to learn something new.”
The couple, who have been married for 61 years, enjoy working on their own individual quilts as well as collaborating. “We’ll collaborate on a design and colors,” says Gloria.
George, a retired architect, says “Geometric designs come easy to me. Gloria likes to do appliqué, and I like the piecing.” Appliquéing is the art of sewing 3-D fabric flowers to use as part of a quilt’s design. Gloria says, “I like to think of my craft as painting with fabric.”
The Art of Stress Relief
One reason that quilting may offer so many benefits to brain health is related to the process of selecting and combining colors and shapes. This is similar to the practice of coloring mandalas: Psychologists believe the process can involve both creativity and logic: Selecting colors for specific shapes taps into the analytical part of the brain, while creating the overall color mix uses the brain’s creative side. This exercises the brain in a unique way, by activating areas of the cerebral cortex that control vision and guide fine motor skills.
This “brain exercise” continues throughout the process of making a quilt. As George says, “When you’re in the middle of a quilt, you have to concentrate on each step. You have to really focus your attention.”
This state of concentration serves to keep your brain active while giving it a break from everyday thoughts, thus reducing stress. In fact, needlework is especially effective at this: Researchers measured stress indicators in people while they did typically stress-reducing activities, including playing cards, playing video games, painting, sewing, and reading. Of the five activities, sewing appeared to be the most relaxing. As the study’s author pointed out, “The act of performing a craft is incompatible with worry, anger, obsession and anxiety.”
The Space to Create—and Display
The Magees have transformed the second bedroom of their Villa Home at Splendido into a quilting studio. The room holds their sizeable fabric collection, a large cutting table, and a table with the sewing machine—but the most valuable area is an 8x8’ sheet of flannel cloth hanging on one wall that they can use as a blank canvas. “We use this to put blocks or swatches up to see how they’ll look together,” explains Gloria.
George adds, “It’s nice to have a space like that where you can see what it’s going to look like. We’ll put something up and leave it for a few days so we can mull it over.”
Their home also serves as a showcase for some of their work. Colorful quilts are used as wall-hangings and other décor. “I don’t know how many quilts we’ve made,” says Gloria. “We’ve given most of them away to family members, but we do have quite a few here.”
Try It Yourself
Good news for those who don’t sew: The stress study showed that sewing had the same stress-relieving benefits for novice sewers as for those more accomplished. If you’re looking for a new creative outlet, take a quilting class, or check with your local fabric store to see if they offer sewing classes or groups.