Art is a powerful tool that allows us to express creativity, thoughts, and feelings. Some even say that “art is food for the soul,” but can it also be “food for the mind”?
Worldwide, cases of dementia are set to increase from 50 million to 152 million within the next 30 years (1). Research has responded to this projection by placing the spotlight on improving cognition in healthy adults and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). In particular, the emphasis has been on approaches such as physical activity and cognitive training (traditionally brain games) (2-4). A recent systematic review is now shifting the focus to an alternative form of cognitive training known as visual art therapy (5). For those not familiar, folks engaging in visual art therapy use different supplies and methods to create artwork. The push to express this creativity may come naturally or be encouraged by others like peers or therapists (5-7).
Visual art therapy can involve: planning, making decisions related to the piece (e.g., what materials and techniques to use), thinking outside the box, talking about the artwork, relationship building through interactions with therapists and peers, reflection on past experiences, reconciling certain emotions and conflicts, and coming to resolutions. These elements demonstrate how this approach can contribute to cognitive stimulation; while also highlighting its therapeutic characteristics (5;7-9).
Sounds promising; let’s examine the evidence.
What the research tells us
The recent review looked at older adults with normal cognition, MCI, or dementia. These individuals engaged in supervised, group-based visual art therapy with activities such as drawing, painting, and coloring abstract patterns. They were then compared to folks not partaking in an activity or involved in other events such as theatre art, recreational activities, or singing.
The review found that visual art therapy may improve cognitive function by a large amount in older adults with MCI, but may have no effect on those with normal cognition. The opposite can be said for depression. Visual art therapy may moderately reduce depressive symptoms in those with normal cognition or dementia, but may have no effect in those with MCI. The results for anxiety where not separated by cognitive health status. Overall, it was demonstrated that visual art therapy might slightly reduce anxiety in older adults with or without cognitive decline. More research is needed to explore the use of visual art therapy as a preventative strategy for cognitive decline and establish the most effective programs (5).
You don’t need to be Pablo Picasso to tap into your artistic side. Look into visual art therapy programs available in your community. Due to COVID-19, where in-person programs are not recommended, look for online programs that can be done at home while still getting the benefits of supervision and group interaction. So, choose your art medium and give it a go!