Take notes, big pharma.
The rate of Alzheimer’s is expected to nearly triple by 2050, and the Alzheimer’s Association reports that it’s the only disease in the top 10 causes of death in America that can’t be prevented, cured, or even slowed. While researchers are working feverishly to understand the mechanisms behind the disease and create new treatments, studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients can find solace and improvement in an an unexpected outlet: art.
When Alzheimer’s takes over, the brain degeneration can become so severe that patients will forget their own names or how to chew food. While art therapy doesn’t provide a cure, it can partially restore Alzheimer’s victims with what the disease has taken from them. In fact, studies have shown that art therapy can trigger dormant memories and stimulate new conversation.
The study from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, focused on how severe patients of Alzheimer’s, amnesia, and dementia recall things through the act of creating art.
In the case of Mary Hecht, her dementia had gotten so bad that she couldn’t name common animals or recall the time on a clock. However, when she got lost in her artwork, she could sketch portraits from memory. For instance, Hecht accurately sketched a portrait of a research student from the Memory Clinic, and she was also able to sketch a Buddha figurine and then reproduce the same drawing from memory a few minutes later. The medical staff report that when Hecht spoke to them about her artwork, she spoke eloquently with no hesitations.
"Art opens the mind," study author Dr. Luis Fornazzari, neurological consultant at St. Michael's Hospital's Memory Clinic, said in a press release. "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."
In another case, researchers looked at artist Lonni Sue Johnson, who had completely lost the ability to form new memories due to a virus that severely damaged her hippocampus and surrounding brain structures. If people visited her room and left, she wouldn’t be able to recognize them if they returned just minutes later; however, she maintained the ability to play the viola, read music, and learn to play new songs, which were skills she had mastered before the virus took over.
In a previous paper, Dr. Fornazzari wrote about a musician who could still play piano and learn new music despite the brain decline due to Alzheimer’s. Study co-author Dr. Corinne Fischer, director at St. Michael's Hospital's Memory Clinic, had previously researched Alzheimer’s patients who were bilingual and, amazingly, found that they had twice as much cognitive reserve as those who were unilingual.
This research goes to show that subjects like art, language, and music are extremely important for a well-rounded academic experience. Many schools cut back on teaching programs for the arts in order to push forward the maths and sciences, but Dr. Fornazzari advises against that approach: "Art should be taught to everyone. It's better than many medications and is as important as mathematics or history."
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