Many people play music as a soothing balm for those with Alzheimer’s, and musical ability is often long retained into the more advanced stages of the disease. Now a new study suggests that singing may have benefits for those with Alzheimer’s. The study, presented at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, found that singing as part of a group led to improvements in the thinking and memory skills and boost mood in those with dementia.
For the study, researchers studied a group of elderly men and women with moderate to severe dementia who were living in a nursing home setting. All had around the same level of fairly advanced mental and cognitive decline at the start of the study.
They were divided into two groups, and over the next four months, they attended a 50-minute music session three times a week. In one group, participants were encouraged to take part in the singing, while those in the other group just listened. The participants listened to songs that they would have been familiar with in their childhood and young adulthood, such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “The Sound of Music,” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
At the end of four months, those who sang along during the music sessions scored far higher, over all, on tests of memory and thinking skills than those who didn’t sing along. They also reported higher scores of overall satisfaction and improved mood.
"These data show that participation in an active singing program for an extended period of time can improve cognition in patients with moderate to severe dementia," the researchers wrote.
Music is known to boost mood and ease stress when used appropriately. Many senior care centers and Alzheimer’s support groups hold music and sing-along sessions in communities nationwide. And a growing body of research suggests that music -- like art and other creative forms of therapy -- can stir emotions and memories, enhance enjoyment and self-esteem, and enrich the lives of people with dementia.
Earlier studies have likewise documented the benefits of music for Alzheimer's disease. In one study, men with dementia who participated in a daily music program for 30 to 40 minutes for a month showed less disruptive behavior, slept better, and became generally more active and cooperative for weeks afterward. In other research, Canadian psychologists found that even in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, when many people are unable to speak or communicate, people retained the ability to recognize musical tunes.
Music may even play a role in helping to ward off Alzheimer's. Researchers from Loyola University in Chicago found that retired orchestra musicians who had spent a lifetime of playing musical instruments were less likely to develop dementia in old age. The findings are consistent with others suggesting that cognitive stimulation, be it doing crossword puzzles, learning a new language, maintaining stimulating social relations, or playing a musical instrument, can help to keep the mind sharp as we age.
While music alone should never take the place of a well-structured program of caregiving or medical treatment, it can complement other forms of treatments. Other tips for music and the person with Alzheimer's include:
- Pick songs or music that is familiar and enjoyable for the person with Alzheimer's disease. Tapes, CDs, radio programs, even live music may be beneficial. But avoid music that may be too loud or interrupted by noisy commercials; too much stimulation can cause confusion and agitation.
- Turn off the TV, and close the door or curtains to avoid over-stimulation.
- Choose music to set the mood you're hoping to create: Quiet music may be suitable before bedtime, while soft but upbeat tunes may be appropriate for a special birthday celebration.
- Encourage those with Alzheimer's to clap or sing along or play a musical instrument.
- Supplement music with fond reminiscences and family photos.
The American Music Therapy Association can provide a list of qualified music professionals in your area. And never be afraid to sing a song or hum along on your own.
Source: L.E. Maguire, P. Wanschura, M. Battaglia, et al: “Analysis of effects of singing on cognitive and emotional factors in assisted-living patients with and without Alzheimer’s disease.” Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, San Diego, Nov. 9, 2013. The American Music Therapy Association.