Can Museums Prevent Cognitive Decline Among Older Adults?

Since getting older and being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I’ve become especially interested in the topic of the aging brain.

The good news is that neuroplasticity enables the brain to modify its structure and function in response to experience. (Interestingly, early scientific evidence for anatomical brain plasticity was discovered in the 1960s by Marian Diamond at UC-Berkeley, who later served as director of the Lawrence Hall of Science.)

In addition to an ongoing capacity to “rewire,” the brain is even able to create new neurons through neurogenesis, once not thought possible in adults. This adaptability offers the potential to enhance mental resilience and compensate for neurodegeneration.

Recent neuroscience research and epidemiological studies support the role of cognitively stimulating activities in fostering brain health among older adults. In one longitudinal study of particular interest to museums, investigators found a lower incidence of dementia over a ten-year follow-up period among those who visited every three months or more. They conclude that museums could become sites for “public health interventions.”

This study and others provide strong justification for museums to place increased emphasis on serving older visitors, especially in light of changing demographics. Older adults are projected to outnumber those under 18 for the first time in U.S. history, as the tail end of the boomer cohort turns 65 in 2030. A similar trend can be observed in Japan and Europe. This population shift is particularly relevant for museums and science centers that primarily serve children and youth, whose numbers are in relative decline.

Adults over 65 increase from 15.2% in 2016 to 23.4% in 2060, while children under 18 decrease from 22.8% to 19.8%
For the first time in U.S. history, older adults are projected to outnumber children by 2035 (US Census Bureau)

Older adults are generally outliers today in museums, although some have begun offering programs under the umbrella of “creative aging” for those afflicted with dementia. Museum programming to promote healthy aging and prevention of cognitive decline remains an unmet need. Surveys support potential demand, with nearly all older adults indicating the importance of maintaining or improving their brain health. Serving this largely untapped audience offers a valuable new strategic direction that would benefit both museums and their communities.

The article “Museums and the Aging Brain” provides further information and guidance on the creation of museum programs in partnership with neuroscientists, other experts, and the target audience. Such efforts are likely to have a positive cognitive impact on older adults, and in any event, should provide informal learning experiences that can enhance participant wellbeing.

Related Articles

Ucko, D. A. (2022). Museums and the aging brain. Curator: The Museum Journal, 65(1), in press. doi:10.1111/cura.12448

Ucko, D. A. (2021). Older adults: A strategic opportunity. Informal Learning Review, 169(Sept-Oct), 12.


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