How an Appreciation for the Arts May Boost Stroke Recovery

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It elevates the soul, but an appetite for the arts may also do the body good. A new study found that stroke survivors who enjoyed music, painting and theater had better recovery than patients who did not.

Researchers from the University Tor Vergata School of Nursing in Rome asked 192 stroke survivors whether they did or did not like art: the participants were fairly split, with 105 reporting an interest in music, painting and theater, and 87 reporting no appreciation. The researchers then compared quality of life for patients who liked art and patients who didn’t.

Overall, art lovers reported a slew of positive physical and mental health benefits. They had more energy, better general health and improved mobility. They were also happier, less anxious or depressed and had better memory and communication skills.

“Stroke survivors who saw art as an integrated part of their former lifestyle, by expressing appreciation towards music, painting and theater, showed better recovery skills than those who did not,” lead author Dr. Ercole Vellone, assistant professor in nursing science at the University Tor Vergata, said in a statement.

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The results underscore the value of lifelong exposure to art, suggesting that it can make long-term changes to the brain that may help it recover from injury, Vellone said. Introducing art to patients during post-stroke care may also help by boosting mood — previous research has shown, for example, that listening to a favorite piece of music stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain, which causes feelings of pleasure. “Dopamine improves quality of life each time it is released in the brain,” said Vellone. “Further research is needed to see if other art forms stimulate dopamine release.”

The new findings, presented at the annual Spring Meeting on Cardiovascular Nursing in Copenhagen, Denmark, fall in line with a 2008 study from Finland that reported that patients who listened to music had easier stroke recovery. That study looked at 60 stroke patients and found that those who listened to music for a couple of hours a day had better verbal memory and attention recovery as well more positive moods, compared with those who didn’t tune in.

“Music works like a megavitamin for the brain. Results in the Finland study showing improved mood is important for recovery,” says Dr. Wendy Magee, associate professor of music therapy at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University in Philadelphia; Magee was not involved with the studies. “We know that after stroke, the incidence of depression is higher due to neurochemical changes in the brain and [hindered motor skills]. We need to find things to elevate patients’ moods so they are more motivated to engage in therapy.”

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The researchers hope the new findings will aid nurses in their caretaking of stroke victims. “Traditionally the attitude in health care is that we use music therapy when nothing else works, but the studies show we should use the therapy right away within the first couple of weeks of treatment,” says Magee.