How To Live Long

It may be no coincidence that so many creative types have long lives. New findings show how doing what you love can add years

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Illustration by Serge Bloch for TIME

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"As a nurse I wasn't very creative," she says, "but my brain is freer now. When I went to art school I learned all of the disciplines, and one professor then said, 'Now go home and forget everything I taught you.'" She took him at his word and has been a painter ever since. The only real concession she makes to age is that she limits her work to watercolors and charcoal since the fumes from oil paints bother her. And she doesn't show her finished pieces at exhibitions quite as much as she used to. "It's getting harder to lug all that stuff down there," she says.

Morey may not think much about mortality--she certainly doesn't sound as if she does--but one thing that also motivates a lot of older artists is the dark but bracing sense that even if you have more free time than ever to create, the mortal clock is running down fast. In one oft-cited study of what's come to be called the swan-song phenomenon, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Davis collected a massive sample group of 1,919 compositions written by 172 classical composers and compared how highly the works were rated by musicologists with how close the creation of those works came to the composers' deaths. On the whole, he found, compositions that were written later in the artists' lives--when, as Simonton wrote, "death was raising a fist to knock on the door"--tended to be briefer, with cleaner, simpler melody lines, and yet scored higher in aesthetic significance, according to the experts.

"In the past, the thinking was that the swan song was all about terror management," says Levenson, "trying to stay busy and deny death. But it's also about leaving a legacy, generating something lasting to mark your time here."

Buying Time

It's easier to explain how aging and creativity are linked in the brain than it is to prove that any of that can actually translate into extra years. There are no fMRIs that can deconstruct longevity the way they can deconstruct brain function. But tales of how the will--or lack of will--to live can lengthen or shorten life are everywhere: in the healthy elderly husband who dies just weeks after he loses his wife of 50 years, in the sickly person who hangs on long enough to attend the wedding of a child or be present for the birth of a grandchild and then peacefully dies.

Some of the links between physical and mental health are obvious. When Morey picks herself up in the morning and sets up her easel--and certainly when she lugs her work to a gallery--she's moving, getting her lungs, muscles and cardiovascular system working. Exercise--even very moderate exercise--is a proven way to reduce the risk of a whole range of ills. What's more, her work makes her happy. "I just love it," she says. "I just feel free to do whatever I want."

Multiple studies over the decades have shown that happiness contributes to longer life. As recently as last year, the British Medical Journal reported a survey of 68,000 subjects in England and found that people with even relatively mild depression have a 29% increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 29% increased risk of dying from other noncancerous disorders. "People who are depressed suffer from hypertension, diabetes, obesity," says Bartzokis. "How well your brain does affects how well your body does."

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