Study: Art gallery therapy improves well-being, memory in dementia patients

CANBERRA, Australia — Mankind has taken refuge in art for centuries. Now, a fascinating new study finds that simply viewing, experiencing, and discussing works of great art can improve the well-being of dementia patients. Furthermore, individuals enrolled in this unique art therapy program also saw their memory and verbal fluency skills improve.

The National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Dementia program has actually been running for over 12 years, producing a number of anecdotal and observational benefits among participants. However, this is the first time scientific research was conducted to back up and solidify the program’s benefits.

The program is a discussion-based tour of Australia’s National Gallery, in which dementia patients are able to engage with art, interpret its meaning, express their emotions, and even discuss any memories the creative works evoke within them. All of this is conducted in a group, which is another big benefit since it’s very common for dementia patients to suffer from isolation and a lack of interaction with other people.

All of the study participants had their saliva tested to measure cortisol levels. Cortisol is considered the main stress hormone, and is vital to regulating one’s mood, blood pressure, and sleep cycles. For most people, cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning after waking up, and gradually decrease throughout the day, usually bottoming out around bed time. Dementia, though, disrupts the typical rhythm of cortisol levels, resulting in patients experiencing increased frailty, agitation, and cognitive decline.

“The waking-to-evening salivary cortisol ratio improved after six weeks of attending the program, and returned to baseline levels at a later follow-up, indicating a more dynamic salivary cortisol rhythm in response to the intervention,” explains lead researcher and University of Canberra PhD candidate Nathan D’Cunha in a release.

D’Cunha notes that while it is still of upmost importance to try and develop a cure for dementia, developing initiatives like this art therapy program that can improve dementia patients’ quality of life is another important aspect of conquering the disease.

Post-program, not only did participants depression symptoms subside, but they also saw an increase in their working memory skills and verbal fluency.

“Six weeks after the study, we asked participants what they remembered of the visits, and almost 50 per cent were able to recall specific aspects of the program,” Mr D’Cunha says. “92 per cent of those responded that they very much looked forward to the visits to the NGA.”

“We believe our results are an important step towards a larger controlled trial which not only asks people living with dementia about their experiences of engaging in regular art discussion, but also seeks to understand their physiological responses using non-invasive methods,” he concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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John Anderer

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