Arts activities are good for old people's health, research suggests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

There has been growing research evidence to suggest the arts can improve cognitive function and memory, bolster mood and sense of well-being, and reduce stress, agitation and aggression. But many past studies have been too limited or poorly designed to say for sure.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others in the US are now pushing for more answers. At Birmingham Green residential care facility, in Manassas, Virginia, researchers from George Mason University are conducting a federally subsidised study to examine the impact of the arts on the emotional and cognitive health of older adults.

"There still needs to be a lot of work done," says Sunil Iyengar, who heads the Office of Research and Analysis at the NEA. Iyengar says research into the effect of art on people with cognitive impairments - Alzheimer's disease or other age-related disabilities - has suffered from a lack of rigour.

Too many studies lacked proper controls, involved samples that were too small, and were poorly defined. They also may have been looking for the wrong thing, Iyengar says. While searching for hard evidence of biological improvements in memory or cognition, many overlooked measurable improvements in the mood and well-being of people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers.

The National Academy of Sciences convened a public workshop in 2011 to investigate ways to bolster research into arts-related interventions for ageing adults. Several studies have hinted at the promise of integrating the arts into therapy for age-related disabilities.

Dance and movement have been shown to help older people avoid falls. Acting sessions strengthen the sense of social ties and community, a critical need for people whose cognitive impairment can lead to isolation. Interventions using everything from drum circles to poetry have been shown to improve psychological symptoms, such as aggression, in such patients.

Music has a strong effect on cognitive function. Research shows musical training can help older people distinguish speech better, particularly amid background noise. People recovering from brain injuries, such as a stroke, have been shown to sing words and phrases they may not be able to speak. Performing music also relies on memory and understanding of visual and sound patterns. For these reasons, people with musical training may weather the effects of ageing better than non-musicians.

"But outside of these things is sheer joy," says Gary Glazner, founder and executive director of the Alzheimer's Poetry Project. Glazner says he was working at an adult day-care centre and searching for ways to connect with people with Alzheimer's when he discovered the power of poetry to reach people with cognitive impairment.

Having studied poetry in college, Glazner shared Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Arrow and the Song with a resident and from the first line - "I shot an arrow" - hit the mark. Glazner uses poetry, particularly beloved classics learned by older adults, in call-and-response with older people and guides them in writing poems. Jump-rope rhymes, even military cadences, can evoke responses from people with cognitive impairment, he says.

Kathryn Dodd, 65, a Birmingham Green resident, says listening to tunes by James Taylor and Mary J. Blige allows her mind to wander to pleasant memories from years ago. "Music brings memories. I basically try to remember the good times - I don't like to dwell on the bad times - and music brings those out," Dodd says. "I got a lot out of it."

George Moseley, 70, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, says his love of painting vivid murals of flowers, birds and landscapes - all showing the years of formal training at the Corcoran School of Art - has been instrumental in helping manage his disability, instead of medication. The activity delivers him from the bondage of his condition, he says. "The paintbrush and the art give me an outlook and a feeling of serenity and peace, love, and joy. The paintbrush is the treatment for all else that has failed."

The Washington Post