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Feature Article Art Keeps Our Brains Active, Aids in Cognitive Healing

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As we get older, there’s a noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive ability, including memory and thinking skills. It’s a normal part of aging. 

But what if there was something we could do that was inexpensive, non-invasive and enjoyable that could prevent or delay cognitive decline?

It turns out there is. Research has shown that making art is not only good medicine when it comes to cognitive healing, it’s also good at preventing cognitive decline and offers many other benefits. Based on these results, many health care providers, including Samaritan, are adding arts into the process of healing.

Robert Fallows, PsyD, of Samaritan Neuropsychology – Albany, was recently involved with an art therapy class for patients newly diagnosed with dementia.

Participants and a caregiver, family member or friend met for four class sessions and completed four different projects.

“Dementia can rob people of some important cognitive abilities early on,” Dr. Fallows said.

Creating art can simulate memories and help people to reconnect with the world. In one of the classes, the patients created a basket, using fine motor dexterity, something that can diminish in the early stages of dementia. That forced the patient’s caregiver to help and work together as a team. 

“The process was great to watch and engage in,” Dr. Fallows said. “The outcome was also useful, as the patient made a memory basket they could use to store keys, a wallet or other important items.”

In another class, patients decorated a whiteboard with their own pictures and designs. 

“We wanted this to be a central communication point for upcoming appointments, important phone numbers and other useful information for the patient and his or her family,” Dr. Fallows said. 

In the next class, they made magnets with flowers and plants that stuck to the whiteboard to hold personal notes and important documents. Although some participants had previous experience with art, it wasn’t a requirement. It is the process of creating art that is most important.

“Arts involvement in health care is promising,” Dr. Fallows said.

Meanwhile, Samaritan’s neuropsychologists caution against claims of so-called “brain training” websites that tout cognitive benefits but lack research support. 

“Independent research studies have demonstrated that the programs tend to improve the skills specific to the task being practiced, but the skills do not seem to transfer to real-world benefits,” said Ashley Watts, PhD, of Samaritan Neuropsychology – Albany. 

For example, if someone uses a brain training program that includes a memory test, the program may improve an individual’s performance on that specific test. But there is no evidence that the person’s memory improves in other ways. 

Also, many of these programs charge fees to participate. Art is one of many cognitive activities that people can enjoy that may offer some reduction in the risk for dementia. And these activities are not only proven effective, but many are free or inexpensive to do.

“These include tasks such as working on arts and crafts, reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and participating in group discussions and social events,” Dr. Watts said.

Many people enjoy reading to stay cognitively active. And research supports the cognitive benefits of reading. But there is a big difference in what’s happening in our brains between art and reading.

“Art involves more active engagement as it creates multiple sensory experiences,” Dr. Watts said. “In creating something through art, you are using your brain in a different way, which keeps your brain active and stimulated.”

Learn more about Samaritan’s groundbreaking ArtsCare program and the integration of art and healing at samhealth.org/ArtsInHealth.