By Chris Weller
Out of the many precious faculties that dementia robs from a person, artistic ability does not seem to be one of them, a recent study finds. And as elderly slip into old age, creative expression could be the key that unlocks what mental illness keeps so painfully inaccessible.
OPENING THE MIND WITH ART
Communication is one of the early losses in a person’s battle with dementia. While an individual may think the same thoughts or carry the same fears, the ability to transmit those thoughts and feelings diminish as the disease worsens. A study from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto Shows promising results for dementia patients whose artistic ability has allowed them to communicate with loved ones and hospital wait staff.
“Art opens the mind,” study author Dr. Luis Fornazzari, neurological consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Memory Clinic, said in a statement. “Mary Hecht was a remarkable example of how artistic abilities are preserved in spite of the degeneration of the brain and a loss in the more mundane, day-to-day memory functions.”
Due to Mary’s previous strokes, she was bound to a wheelchair. Mary’s cognitive ability was so impaired that she couldn’t reproduce the correct time in a simple drawing of a clock; she also couldn’t remember any of the words she was asked to recall or name common animals. Yet she was able to reproduce from memory a drawing she had done free-handedly moments earlier. She also drew a detailed portrait of a research assistant at the hospital’s Memory Clinic.
COMMUNICATING WHAT WORDS CAN’T
“Art therapy is helpful for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients,” said Dr. Daniel Potts, neurologist and dementia specialist in Alabama, because it enables an individual who is having trouble communicating to bypass the language problems they may be having and communicate and express themselves in a different way.”
Scientists don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia and results from amyloid protein deposits in the brain’s nerve cells. These plaques spread through the cortexes as the disease progresses, slowing mental function and inhibiting critical neurological processes associated with memory and cognition. Art therapy seems to “reroute” communication pathways away from traditional means.
While art therapy cannot cure a person’s dementia, it can offer substantial rewards that a person may not otherwise receive in such an impaired state. These come from personal accomplishments, the satisfaction of completion, and simply the joy of the artistic process.
“It gives an individual a sense of accomplishment,” added Potts. “They’re losing their cognition, but art therapy gives them a way to create and get some satisfaction. It allows their true self to be expressed when it otherwise can’t.”
–Chris Weller is a Senior Reporter at Medical Daily, where he covers brain health.