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In older people with mild cognitive decline, visual art therapy improves cognitive ability by a small amount

Malika 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.

Review question

In older people, does visual art therapy improve cognitive (thinking) ability?


Decline in cognitive ability is common in older adults. Risk or progression of cognitive decline may be reduced by exposing the brain to challenging mental activities. Visual art therapy involves several mental activities (creativity, planning, decision making, cognitive control, abstract thinking, and verbal expression) that may stimulate the brain, but it is not known whether it can help improve thinking and prevent cognitive decline.

How the review was done

The researchers did a systematic review of studies available up to September 2019. They found 10 randomized controlled trials and 1 nonrandomized study that included a total of 831 people.

Key features of the studies were

  • patients were 60 years of age or older, and the average age was 71 years;
  • 63% were women;
  • people had normal cognition, cognitive decline without a diagnosis, mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer disease, or any type of dementia;
  • visual art therapy included drawing, painting ceramic plates and tiles, coloring abstract patterns, painting, or visual art cognitive evaluation and analysis;
  • visual art therapy was done in supervised group-based activities that allowed interaction;
  • visual art therapy sessions were 35 minutes to 2 hours long, one to three times per week for 4 to 40 weeks; and
  • visual art therapy was compared with recreational activities, theatre art, singing/music, cognitive stimulation, or no activity.

What the researchers found

Compared with control, visual art therapy:

  • improved global cognition (overall thinking) by a small amount in people with mild cognitive impairment;
  • improved working memory (the ability to remember information for a short time) by a moderate amount;
  • reduced depressive symptoms by a small amount; and
  • reduced anxiety by a small amount.


In older people with mild cognitive decline, visual art therapy improves cognitive ability by a small amount.

Visual art therapy vs control in older people with or without cognitive decline


Number of studies

Effect of visual art therapy

Global cognition (overall thinking)

7 studies

Visual art therapy improved global cognition by a small amount.

Working memory (ability to remember information for a short time)

3 studies

Visual art therapy improved working memory by a moderate amount.

Depressive symptoms

6 studies

Visual art therapy reduced depressive symptoms by a small amount.


4 studies

Visual art therapy reduced anxiety by a small amount.



Cognitive impairment
Trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect everyday life.
Randomized controlled trials
Studies where people are assigned to one of the treatments purely by chance.
Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

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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 (

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