According to a study by physicians at St. Michael’s Hospital in Canada, artistic skills may be well preserved in the brains of artists even after many years battling the deleterious effects of vascular dementia.
A paper published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, described “the last few years of the late Mary Hecht, an internationally renowned sculptor, who was able to draw spur-of-the moment and detailed sketches of faces and figures, including from memory, despite an advanced case of vascular dementia.” Mary Hecht, who died this year at age 81, was unable to complete a clock drawing used to evaluate dementia or could not name a picture of an animal or perform word recall. She was, however, able to sketch an accurate portrait of a student in the St Michael’s Memory Clinic and do a free-hand sketch of a lying Budda; then reproduce it from memory a few minutes later. According to hospital staff, she was able to speak without hesitation and eloquently about art while she was drawing.
“Art opens the mind,” said Luis Fornazzari, MD, a neurological consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Memory Clinic and lead author of the paper. “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.”
According to Corinne Fischer, MD, hospital director and a co-author on the paper, “This is the most exceptional example of the degree of preservation of artistic skills we’ve seen in our clinic. As well, most of the other studies that have been done in this area looked at other kinds of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease or frontal temporal dementia, while this is a case of cognitive reserve in a patient with fairly advanced vascular dementia.”
Dr. Fornazzari published a paper in Neurology in 2006 “detailing a musician who, despite declining health because of Alzheimer’s disease, could still play the piano and learn new music.” And Dr. Fischer and colleagues published a study in Cortex that looked at bilingual patients with Alzheimer’s and “discovered they had twice as much cognitive reserve as their unilingual counterparts.” Both clinician’s are interested in additional studies of art and neurological illness and highly recommend more art in education. “Art should be taught to everyone. It’s better than many medications and is as important as mathematics or history,” notes Dr Fornazzari.