Senior Art Therapy

Can Art Therapy Slow Cognitive Decline?

Exploring the Benefits of Art Therapy for Cognitive Health and Aging.

Emma Yasinski
Emma Yasinski Staff Writer

In April 2024, authors announced in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that they’d planned to conduct a meta-analysis on the effects of art therapy for seniors on subjective cognitive decline.1 A meta-analysis is a review of all of the available studies on a particular topic in a certain time frame, which is considered one of the strongest ways to make sense of existing evidence.

Subjective cognitive decline is a person’s own perception that their memory is worsening, and it’s a strong indicator for the likelihood that someone will experience mild cognitive decline or dementia over time.

While we at MedShadow will be anxiously awaiting the results of the analysis, here’s what we already know about art therapy and cognition.

Art Therapy for Seniors

“I found this class by accident. I was looking through some activities for seniors, and I found this art class,” Beverly Long tells the camera in a video created by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.2 “When I leave the class, I have this positive feeling of happiness and joy, and I feel younger, and I do still have the enthusiasm from the class linger on to the rest of the day.”

She’s describing an art class, hosted by Lifetime Arts, in which seniors socialize and work on paintings and collages for about two-and-a-half hours at a time.

In another video, ten seniors in bright, floral shirts sit in a line cheerfully strumming ukuleles and singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The program, also run by Lifetime Arts, takes place at a local library in Wyoming.

In addition to hundreds of partnerships with local museums and libraries, Lifetime Arts also offers a free online course for those hoping to start similar programs in their community.

Art Therapy for Seniors Helps Mild Cognitive Decline and Dementia

There is some existing evidence that art therapy can help improve symptoms of mild cognitive decline and dementia. The results of studies are mixed, but tend to show more positive results than negative.

One group of scientists specifically reviewed studies on visual art therapy on mild cognitive decline.3 Visual art therapy would include things like drawing, painting and photography, but not music, dance or gardening, for example. Many older adults experience mild cognitive decline, a condition in which people begin to experience memory problems but they’re not severe enough to be considered dementia. They found that out of seven studies, five demonstrated that visual art therapy could improve symptoms of mild cognitive impairment. Four out of six studies that measured psychological wellbeing showed that the therapy helped people emotionally. Lastly, two of the studies showed that patients sustained these improvements for at least six to nine months.

A separate systematic review of 17 studies found that in 15 of the studies, participants with dementia saw at least one of the following benefits from art therapy: improved wellbeing, better quality of life, reduced biological and psychological symptoms of dementia, or better cognitive function.4

Whether art therapy actually slows cognitive decline—or the subjective experience of it—or not, Erica Curcio, a licensed mental health therapist and registered art therapist in Boston, says that when it’s tailored to the particular patient, it can have profound impacts on quality of life.

The authors of the study wrote that a part of the benefit comes from the therapies allowing patients to be “in the moment,” easing communication and connection with their caregivers.

Art therapy “is something I’d highly recommend for individuals and for families,” says Shenella Karunaratne, a licensed mental health therapist in Dallas, Texas. “Cognitive decline can also be extremely difficult on the loved ones related to the person going through it, which is why this kind of therapy can be beneficial together. It can be a respite, and when doing it together, it allows family members to create new, happy memories together.”

What can art therapy look like?

One reason that it’s difficult to study art therapy is that there are many different versions. Art therapy can include painting, playing instruments, singing, dancing, photography and more. “The main idea is that a person feels in control and capable of the art supply they’re using,” says Curcio.

The therapies can be guided or independent. And Curcio explains they can mean different things to different people. She offered the following two examples:

A client with Primary Progressive Aphasia and has minimal verbal language may feel frustrated that they can no longer speak in their day-to-day life. They may feel that the people around them don’t always understand their feelings, wants and desires. This client could start out the session appearing frustrated and low energy. Using paint they are able to get into a creative flow state that encourages them to use their impulses to create on the canvas. They feel in control of the brush and empowered to make the marks that they want. By the end of the session this client may be maintaining eye contact, smiling and may even be able to comment on their painting. Their mood shifts completely.

A client with Vascular Dementia that onset after a stroke. Art Therapy can be a great addition to the support of physical and/or occupational therapy as they rehab from a stroke. The client may have difficulty at first with using fine motor skills, but still finds joy in the creative process. They are still able to copy something from looking at it, but their skills aren’t as good as they were before the stroke. Weekly Art Therapy can be used as a rehab to rebuild those fine motor skills. The client may practice drawing and using paint during the session. After a few months of working together the client may experience an enhancement in their skills and more confidence in their day to day life.

The upcoming meta-analysis may offer exciting results that help us understand how and when art therapy can be most helpful, but in the meantime, expressing yourself using an art medium that you enjoy can likely stimulate you both cognitively and emotionally, and may help ward off symptoms of dementia.

For other tips on how to prevent dementia, check out MedShadow’s Prevent Alzheimer’s: Lifestyle Modifications You Can Make Today.