It can be easy to focus on the things that we lose as we age. Energy, sleep, even taste buds! The possibility of losing one’s memory can be the scariest thing of all, and, unfortunately, it does happen to many people as they age. In fact, it has been estimated that 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 will be affected by some form of dementia. Researchers are working hard to find ways to slow down or even cure Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, but, unfortunately, as of now, there is no cure. However, there is definitely some very promising research showing that our brain’s capacity for creativity doesn’t diminish, and that using creativity can help improve quality of life for those with dementia.
Does Dementia Affect Creativity?
Many researchers are finding that programs teaching art or using art as a jumping off point for discussion can be more than just a way to pass the time for those suffering from dementia. They can rebuild confidence, as well as allow participants a way to express themselves and even communicate more effectively. Researchers are also finding that artists can continue to practice their art, whether it’s painting, music, or writing, no matter their diagnosis; their art may change, but that doesn’t mean it changes for the worse.
According to Anne Basting, director of the Center on Age and Community at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, “People look at dementia as loss and deficit. They never assume people with dementia can grow or learn anything [but] that’s what we’re witnessing: growth and expression and skill-building.” Basting has pioneered writing and other arts programs for people with dementia; she has seen firsthand how the people she works with use art to bypass traditional ways of expressing themselves and get their point across in other ways.
When it comes to people who were artists before their diagnosis, neurologist Bruce L. Miller, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco has found that their work can actually become more original as their dementia progresses. In addition, he has seen dementia patients who were not artists before their diagnosis develop an interest in and a talent for art afterwards.
According to Miller, “We typically don’t think that something could be getting better, we only think about what’s getting worse,” he said. “Now I always ask if there’s anything patients are doing very well, or better than before. It’s a remarkable response to a dementing illness.” All this suggests that the way our brains deal with creativity may be different than the way they deal with our day-to-day functioning.
Is it possible that art can have a long-term positive effect on the brain? Dr. Luis Fornazzari, a neurologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada, has been trying to answer just that question, and he and his team have made exciting discoveries. They have found that the brain anatomy of musicians is different from that of others. Their brains had built special “neural networks” that were more resistant to the effects of stroke, dementia, and even traumatic brain injuries. The musicians they worked with could continue to play their music and even learn new songs even if they had been affected by dementia.
Fornazzari and his team also found that painters and artists who draw can continue their craft, and dancers can experience delayed progression of Parkinson’s; one renowned sculptor who was unable to tell time, name certain animals, and recall simple words was able to draw beautiful, detailed sketches of people from memory.
It’s definitely looking like engaging in any kind of creative pursuit can be beneficial to the brain. After looking at all of these promising studies, researchers now believe that art protects the brain and gives it an alternative way to function. “We noticed for instance that some of the artists lost their speech. They couldn’t talk,” he said. “But at the same time, the art was totally preserved.” For those suffering from dementia, tapping into their creativity could be a way to keep communicating with and connecting to the work around them.
The Benefits of Art on the Brain
So is there any evidence that adding more creativity into the lives of all people suffering from dementia is beneficial? Well, as we already pointed out, there are many programs that offer art classes to dementia patients, and many studies (as well as anecdotal accounts) showing that art is great for people as they age. Now, one study in Australia has even found physical evidence that art has benefits for the brains of even non-artists with dementia.
Researchers at the University of Canberra studied participants in an Art and Dementia program at the National Gallery of Australia; these older adults with dementia spent time at the museum engaging with and discussing the artwork. The results? The researchers found that the program made a big difference in cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels in the participants in the program; participants had lower levels after spending time at the program. High cortisol levels are often associated with more rapid cognitive decline, so this was very good news.
Not only that, but researchers were surprised to find that some of the participants could remember specific artwork, describe it in detail, and talk about what they liked about it after the program ended. They also said that they experienced less “sundowning,” or confusion that sets in later in the day.
These results are hopeful. They are showing that art can improve quality of life for many people and can help maintain connections. The words of some of the participants of the Art and Dementia program say it all: “I feel like me again,” said one. “It is good coming here because we all know we have the same problem so we are accepting when people … forget. I feel as though I belong somewhere.” Another participant wrote, “The only time I feel the purple cloud of my diagnosis lift is when I visit the Gallery”. Finally, one who wrote at the beginning of the program, “I feel as though I am disappearing,” ended it reporting: “It has been so positive, I feel intelligent again.”
All of this proves that we should value art and creativity, and encourage making it a part of everyone’s lives, no matter their age. “Art opens the mind,” according to Luis Fornazzari. “It should be taught to everyone. It’s better than many medications and is as important as mathematics or history.”