Every week, Canberrans living with dementia come to the National Gallery of Australia to take in the artwork and interact with others.
Now researchers from the University of Canberra are working with the program to find out if the art program is effective at improving the quality of life for people living with dementia. And they will find out by studying the participants' saliva.
PhD candidate Nathan D’Cunha and Art and Dementia Program coodinator Adriane Boag will be working on the project together.
Mr D’Cunha believes regular social activity, such as participation in the NGA program, is an important vehicle to unlocking a person’s mind, and he thinks the proof may be in saliva by tracking cortisol levels.
"If we can find that a program like this gives some biochemical benefit it might help to promote more similar programs in existing public places to bring people with dementia into places like this too and have social groups so they're being more active," he said.
Mr D’Cunha’s research will investigate the benefits of participation in the program through questionnaires and saliva samples over a six-week period.
“Through the saliva, we can measure cortisol quite well, which is our primary stress hormone,” Mr D’Cunha said. “We are particularly interested in ‘before’ and ‘after’ measures of the rhythm of cortisol over the day.
“Normally, cortisol shoots up after waking, then drops gradually and bottoms out when we go to bed. In people living with dementia, it’s been found that disruption of this rhythm is consistent with increased frailty, agitation and decreased cognitive performance.”
The tests will also be looking at various markers of inflammation in the body, which is associated with poorer cognitive performance in people with dementia.
While the saliva tests will provide the physiological results, the questionnaires will be used to detect changes in quality of life and behaviour including agitation and nutritional status.
The Art and Dementia Program has been successfully running at the national gallery since 2007 under the guidance of program producer Adriane Boag. It provides people living with dementia an opportunity to connect with others and learn about art.
“People with dementia typically haven’t declined cognitively as much as people may think,” Mr D’Cunha said. “That may be why they like going to the gallery so much; because people treat them with respect.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study of its kind to look at the physiological effects of an art gallery intervention for people with dementia.”
Mr D’Cunha is a recipient of a Dementia Australia PhD scholarship and he is looking for people with dementia and their carer or a family member to sign up for the six-week program at the gallery beginning in mid-July. Participants will be required to collect saliva and respond to questionnaires at three time points.
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