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The Surprising Link Between Dementia and Music

Monday , October 21 , 2019

The Surprising Link Between Dementia and Music

Alzheimer’s Disease is a neurological disorder in which the death of brain cells causes memory loss and cognitive decline. Typically, symptoms start out mild and get progressively worse over time. Eventually, Alzheimer’s patients will have difficulty remembering recent events or recognizing people they know, and their ability to reason will fade.

If this sounds stressful to you, it’s because it is. Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s – and other forms of dementia – often experience severe anxiety and disorientation. But new research shows that listening to music may help.

5.7 Million Americans Live with Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.7 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer’s Disease – about one in every six women and one in every ten men over the age of 55. That number is expected to increase to 14 million diagnosed cases by 2050.

The first signs of the disease often include memory loss, poor judgement, taking longer than normal to complete daily tasks, and losing or misplacing things. Alzheimer’s progresses differently for each person, but ultimately everyone will have trouble with day-to-day decision making, self-care, and the use of language. Mood and personality changes are very common, as are anxiety and aggression.

These changes aren’t just difficult for the patient, but for the people around them. Both caregivers and healthcare professionals are constantly trying to come up with strategies to prevent or relieve the emotional distress experienced by their loved ones and patients.

One way of alleviating Alzheimer’s-related anxiety has consistently stood out as a promising: Listening to music.

Can Music Help Someone with Alzheimer’s?

A 2017 study from The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease looked at individuals with subjective cognitive decline – the self-reported experience of worsening or more frequent confusion or memory loss – and found that “music listening can significantly enhance both subjective memory function and objective cognitive performance in adults with SCD, and may offer promise for improving outcomes in this population.”

A more recent study from scientists at the University of Utah Health music can “tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.” 

The brain’s salience network is a collection of regions of the brain that select which stimuli are deserving of our attention. It contributes to a number of different functions, including communication, social behavior, and self-awareness.

According to study co-author Dr. Jeff Anderson, the team was interested in seeing how music might stimulate undamaged regions of this and other brain networks.

Over a period of three weeks, they assisted participants (17 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease) in finding and selecting songs that were known and meaningful to them.

Using this information, the team created personalized playlists, which they loaded onto portable media players and instructed the participants and their caregivers on how to use. The affects, they say, were astounding.

Music Stimulated Brain Activity

When the scientists performed MRI scans of the participants’ brains while they listened to music from their own playlists, they found that individual brain networks were stimulated. In addition, communication between individual networks was greater.

The effected areas of the brain included the visual network, salience network, and executive network.

“This is objective evidence from brain imaging,” says senior study author Dr. Norman Foster, “that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease.”

“Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses,” he notes, “but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.”

The Future of Music Therapy

Many people believe that music holds the key to stopping – or even reversing – Alzheimer’s-related cognitive decline. Still, despite the encouraging results of the University of Utah study, researchers warn against wishful thinking.

This particular study had a small pool of participants and un-replicated results. In addition, researchers were unable to track how long the positive effects of music listening could last.

Bottom line? More research is needed.

Using Music to Connect with Your Loved Ones

Even if we don’t know if, or how, music will be used to treat Alzheimer’s in the future, we do know that it helps to calm those who suffer. Listening to or singing songs can provide many emotional benefits to Alzheimer’s patients, as well as those with other forms of dementia.

If you’d like to use music to help a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, consider these tips from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Think about your loved one’s preferences.What kind of music does your loved one enjoy? What music evokes memories of happy times in his or her life? Involve family and friends by asking them to suggest songs or make playlists.
  • Set the mood.To calm your loved one during mealtime or a morning hygiene routine, play music or sing a song that’s soothing. When you’d like to boost your loved one’s mood, use more upbeat or faster paced music.
  • Avoid overstimulation.When playing music, eliminate competing noises. Turn off the TV. Shut the door. Set the volume based on your loved one’s hearing ability.
  • Encourage movement.Help your loved one to clap along or tap his or her feet to the beat. If possible, consider dancing with your loved one.
  • Sing along.Singing along to music together with your loved one can boost the mood and enhance your relationship.
  • Pay attention to your loved one’s response.If your loved one seems to enjoy particular songs, play them often. If your loved one reacts negatively to a particular song or type of music, choose something else.

Keep in mind, because each Alzheimer’s patient is different, it is possible that music will have no effect at all. Still, it’s worth it to try!

Posted in: Dementia