Let’s get visual! The “art” of improving cognitive ability and mental wellbeing

The Bottom Line

  • Globally, it is estimated that 152 million people will be living with dementia by the year 2050, prompting research focusing on the betterment of cognitive health. 
  • Visual art therapy is an alternative cognitive training strategy that involves the production of artwork.  
  • Visual art therapy may improve cognitive function and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in some older adults. One’s cognitive health status can impact whether positive results are seen. 
  • Consider looking into or registering for a visual art therapy program, online options are available.    

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!

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Author Details


  1. World Health Organization. Dementia. [Internet] 2020. [cited December 2020]. Available from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia  
  2. Chiu H, Chu H, Tsai J, et al. The effect of cognitive-based training for the healthy older people: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS One. 2017; 12(5):e0176742. doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176742.
  3. Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, et al. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018; 52(3):154-160. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096587. 
  4. Gheysen F, Poppe L, DeSmet A, et al. Physical activity to improve cognition in older adults: Can physical activity programs enriched with cognitive challenges enhance the effects? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2018; 15(1):63. doi: 10.1186/s12966-018-0697-x.
  5. Masika GM, Yu DSF, Li PWC. Visual art therapy as a treatment option for cognitive decline among older adults. A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Adv Nurs. 2020; 76:1892-1910.
  6. Ma DA. Visual art therapy's unique contribution in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders J Trauma Dissociation. 2006; 6(4):5-38. 
  7. Ulman E. Art therapy: Problems of definition. Am J Art Ther. 2001; 16-26. 
    8. Bolwerk A, Mack-Andrick J, Lang FR, et al. How art changes your brain: Differential effects of visual art production and cognitive art evaluation on functional brain connectivity. PLoS ONE. 2014; 9(7), 1-8.
  8. De Pisapia N, Bacci F, Parrott D, et al. (2016). Brain networks for visual creativity: A functional connectivity study of planning a visual artwork. Scientific Reports. 2016; 6:1-11.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.