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Dr. Gene Cohen

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

This is about the loss of a leader in the field of aging.

The man is Dr. Gene C. Cohen, director of the Center of Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University.  He died Nov. 6.  Known as a pioneer in gerontology and geriatric psychiatry, he shifted the focus of aging from problems to potential.

When he started his career, the medical establishment treated aging like a disease.  Cohen challenged that approach.  He took on the establishment when he wrote, “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life” (William Morrow, 2000).

“In 1973 I announced to my mentors and colleagues that I planned to build my career around the study of aging and the treatment of older adults,” he wrote. “Gerontology?  They thought I was nuts.  ‘You’re throwing away your career!’ ‘You’re a Harvard graduate – you should know better.’  ‘You need to have your head examined.’”

Creativity in later life was a subject of his research and writing.  He advocated that each of us is endowed with an indomitable spirit of creativity — a flame that heats the human spirit and kindles our desire for inner growth and self-expression.

A study he conducted in 2002 demonstrated that those engaged in the arts in later life had fewer illnesses and injuries and more independence.

He described three aspects of creativity among older adults that stand out:

“Creativity strengthens our morale in later life.”  Regardless of our physical condition, we feel better when we can view problems with some creativity and new perspectives.

“Creativity contributes to physical health as we age.”  Studies suggest that creativity promotes a sense of well-being and optimism; both benefit our immune system and overall health.  This feeling of well-being is particularly apparent among older adults.

“Creativity is our greatest legacy.”  Being creative in later life makes for an “invaluable role mode for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and society.”  Role models shape individual thinking and even social policies about aging.

Cohen connected creativity to brain health and intellectual growth.  “Brains create new brain cells as long as people are encouraged to keep trying new pursuits,” he wrote. He found that people in traditional retirement years have almost limitless capacity for intellectual growth.

In his book, “The Mature Mind:  The Positive Power of the Aging Brain” (Basic Books, 2005), he again took on an established way of thinking.

“The big news is that the brain is far more flexible and adaptable than once thought,”  he wrote. We learn that the brain can grow new cells – a stunning finding – and that older people use both sides of their brain.  In their youth, they predominantly used one side or the other.

Cohen found that the brain becomes stronger through use and from being challenged.

Sigmund Freud wrote that older people could no longer be educated.  Jean Piaget, the Swiss child psychologist, wrote that development stopped in young adulthood and then slowly eroded.  And Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, devoted only one stage in his stages of life after adulthood.

Cohen added to the work of Marion Diamond, professor of anatomy at UC Berkeley, who found that in her study of older rats, the brain changes as a result of learning. Cohen worked was with humans, finding that learning – learning anything – stimulates brain cells or neurons to grow and make new connections.

Here is a story Cohen frequently told that encapsulated his theories and work.  It illustrates the agility and creativity of the human mind:

On a snowy day, Cohen’s in-laws arrived in Washington, D.C., and emerged from the subway lost.  They couldn’t find a taxi or reach a phone (it was before cell phones) to call their family.  His father-in-law had an idea:  He and his wife walked across the street to a pizza parlor, and ordered a pizza to be delivered to the Cohen home.  Then he insisted that the delivery man take them too.

The field has lost one of its greats – someone who had the courage, intellectual curiosity and brilliance to challenge conventional wisdom.  He provided a basis for looking forward to a good old age – as long as we continue to grow.

Thank you, Dr. Cohen.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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