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Can Creativity Protect Against Alzheimer's?

A new study is underway examining the power of art to stave off dementia.

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Mary Hecht, a renowned sculptor and painter, died in April, at the age of 81. She suffered from vascular dementia, a cousin of Alzheimer's disease, and by the time of her death, she was unable to remember the names of people she'd just met. She failed every cognitive and spacial test; she could not draw a simple cube. But one afternoon, when she heard that her old friend, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, had passed away, she drew a stunning picture of him from memory.

"We were amazed. We were almost emotional," said Dr. Luis Fornazzari, neurological consultant at the St. Michael's Hospital Memory Clinic and lead author of a new paper about the role of creativity in fending off dementia. "What's more, when drawing, Hecht would speak eloquently about art."

Fornazzari watched Hecht's personality transform when given a sketch pad. In general, she was combative and recalcitrant, but with a pencil in hand, she was chatty and eloquent. "At one point, she drew her nurse’s face and hair in very talented way and said, 'This is your face a la Klimt.'"

Hecht is not the only subject who was roused from her illness by art. One of Fornazzari's patients was a concert pianist who couldn't recall the basic narrative of a story, but in a week's time, transcribed and mastered a brand new piece of music.

"Through [creative] practice, these subjects have developed unique neural networks that are specific for art," Fornazzari explained. "We suggest that those neural networks are more resistant to effect of diseases like Alzheimer's and vascular dementia or even strokes." He added that the neural networks might actually be stronger than the pathologies. "All of these diseases are different, but the common denominator is art—and any kind of art." Patients with Parkinson's disease who studied dance, required less medication. The reason: "music and rhythm are boosters."

Fornazzari is a strong advocate of teaching art in school. He believes the subject is as vital as science, history, and math—not simply as a way of expanding our minds but in order to physically bolster them against disease. His team is currently studying whether practicing art can actually delay the onset of Alzheimer's. They have already published an abstract suggesting that this may be the case. "No other medical intervention can do that," he said.

See Hecht's artwork in the slide show above.

[Artwork by Mary Hecht]