Regardless of your age, you have probably experienced the uplifting power that music can have. Within seconds, a song can transport you back to your wedding day, a memorable trip, or another special event, uplifting your spirits and bringing back much-cherished memories.
Research shows that music can transform the lives of elderly individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia, stimulating pathways in the brain that aren’t affected by the condition and helping them to feel like themselves again.
- What Is Music Therapy?
- Music Therapy for Older Persons
- Why Experts Say Music “Awakens” Dementia and Alzheimer’s Patients
- Theory 1
- Theory 2
- How Music Affects the Brain
- Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia Treatment
- How Music Therapy Can Help Families of Loved Ones with Dementia and Alzheimer’s
- Memory Through Sound
- Use Music to Engage Your Loved One with Dementia
- Concluding Thoughts
What Is Music Therapy?
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is the clinical, evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish a person’s individualized goals by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. [i]
Music therapy interventions can help with:
- Stress management
- Pain management
- Memory enhancement
- Improved communication
- Promotion of wellness
- Unique opportunities for socialization
Music Therapy for Older Persons
Specifically, music helps elderly people with functional deficits socially, cognitively, psychologically, or physically. Research shows that music therapy can be an effective form of sensory stimulation which elicits responses because of the familiarity, predictability, and feeling of security that accompany it, even for seniors who are resistant to other treatment options. [ii]
Why Experts Say Music “Awakens” Dementia and Alzheimer’s Patients
Andrew Budson, leader of a research team from the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, has two theories to explain the effects of music on dementia patients. [iii]
Music provokes emotional memories, which Budson says are some of our most powerful memories.
Our knowledge of music is stored as procedural memory, which is left largely intact as dementia progresses, while episodic memory (memory of places, times, and contextual knowledge) is greatly compromised.
How Music Affects the Brain
So many parts of the brain are stimulated by music. Research done by Jacobsen and colleagues [iv] on the effects of music in the memory of Alzheimer’s patients used neuroimaging to study the parts of the brain stimulated by music.
First, brains of young adults were analyzed for regional patterns of the brain activated by music. Then the same areas were assessed in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease compared with healthy brains of older adults.
Results showed that specific cortical areas associated with musical memory in young adults were the shown to be less affected by Alzheimer’s than other areas of the brain as evidenced by neuroimaging biomarkers.
While research is ongoing, these results are helpful in piecing together the puzzle of how music and memory go together.
Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia Treatment
Numerous benefits are contributed to personalized music and memory programs like those done through Music & Memory®, which has implemented tailored music programs in hundreds of care facilities in North America. [v]
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Music triggers memories in elderly individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s and taps into unconscious emotions, triggering strong, meaningful feelings even if patients don’t remember who they are.
Elderly individuals become empowered to come out of the isolation that they so often feel as a result of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Some residences surveyed have even reported a reduction in the need for psychotropic drugs. This is important because these drugs can have adverse side effects. [vi]
During formal music therapy sessions, therapists observe the following benefits to patients: [vii]
- A positive shift in emotional state and mood
- Increased memory recall
- A feeling of control
- Drug-free management for discomfort and pain
- Physical rehabilitation benefits including the promotion of vocal fluency and continuous
- Increased social opportunities to interact with others while listening to music together
- Intellectual and sensory stimulation that increases the level of interest in the elderly individual even when other tactics fail
- Overall improved functioning emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially
- Decrease in the frequency of aggressive and agitated behaviors
- Effective even in the later stages of dementia
In addition to the benefits observed above, research shows that carefully selected music can help seniors with occasional or mild dementia get regular exercise. Since poor fitness is linked with a higher dementia risk, exercise is a key component for prevention.
A study done by the UT Southwestern Medical Center shows scientists have hard evidence that exercise has the ability to improve brain health and could aid in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. [viii]
How Music Therapy Can Help Families of Loved Ones with Dementia and Alzheimer’s
Music therapy also provides many benefits for the families of those living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. These include:
- Relaxation for the whole family
- Respite for the family caregiver
- Quality time spent together in a creative, positive way
- Emotional stimulation for the remembrance of family bonds
- An intimate opportunity for increased verbal and non-verbal interaction
- A setting for a couple or family to share common experiences
Memory Through Sound
While music therapy can positively impact people of all ages, it is particularly helpful for elderly people with dementia when communication is a struggle.
Since dementia is degenerative, affected individuals often have problems expressing their basic needs, leading to a feeling of isolation.
Music can help a person express themselves without relying on verbal communication. This, in turn, gives the elderly individuals with dementia a sense of freedom, sense of identity, and mental stimulation.
Use Music to Engage Your Loved One with Dementia
Of course, you don’t have to enlist the help of a music therapist to engage with your loved one musically. To get a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s engaged, look for music from the genre that they are most fond of.
Researchers are currently investigating whether song can be used to help elderly with Alzheimer’s or dementia learn and retain vital information like daily routines or taking medication.
While the results of that research are ongoing, experts do agree that music will be an important tool in caring for and treating patients with dementia going forward.
Regardless of future developments, it is clear that music is beneficial to pulling up precious memories and improving the quality of life for seniors with dementia and Alzheimer’s and their families.