Older adults who take up drawing — even when they’re not very good at it — can help boost their memory, according to a new Canadian study published in the journal Experimental Aging and Research.
The findings show that drawing as a method to help retain new information is more effective than re-writing notes, visualization exercises or passively looking at images.
“We found that drawing enhanced memory in older adults more than other known study techniques,” said Melissa Meade, PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo (UW) in Ontario, Canada.
“We’re really encouraged by these results and are looking into ways that it can be used to help people with dementia, who experience rapid declines in memory and language function.”
In a series of experiments, the researchers asked both young adults and older adults to do a variety of memory-encoding techniques and then tested their recall. Meade conducted the study with Dr. Myra Fernandes, a psychology professor in cognitive neuroscience at Waterloo, and Dr. Jeffrey Wammes.
The researchers believe that drawing can help a person’s memory more than other study techniques because it incorporates several ways of representing the information: visual, spatial, verbal, semantic and motoric.
“Drawing improves memory across a variety of tasks and populations, and the simplicity of the strategy means that it can be used in many settings,” said Fernandes.
As part of the research, the team compared different types of memory techniques designed to help participants mentally retain a set of words.
The volunteers would either encode each word by writing it out, by drawing it, or by listing physical attributes associated with each item. Later on after completing each task, memory was assessed. Both groups showed better retention when they used drawing rather than writing to encode the new information, and this effect was particularly strong in older adults.
Retaining new information typically gets worse as people age, due to deterioration of critical brain structures involved in memory such as the hippocampus and frontal lobes. In contrast, research has shown that visuospatial processing regions of the brain, involved in representing images and pictures, are mostly intact in normal aging, and in dementia.
“We think that drawing is particularly relevant for people with dementia because it makes better use of brain regions that are still preserved, and could help people experiencing cognitive impairment with memory function,” said Meade.
“Our findings have exciting implications for therapeutic interventions to help dementia patients hold on to valuable episodic memories throughout the progression of their disease.”
Source: University of Waterloo