Play a Song, or Sing Along, for Alzheimer’s

February 1, 2006

February 1, 2006

A Mozart concerto, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite, even a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” may all provide benefits for the person with Alzheimer’s disease. A growing body of research suggests that music, like art, pets, and other creative forms of therapy, can stir emotions and memories, enhance enjoyment and self-esteem, and enrich the lives of people with dementia.

“Relaxation with the type of music that calms you down is very beneficial,” says Dr. Ardash Kumar, a music therapy researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Florida. “To promote a sense of calm and well-being, you can listen to your favorite soothing music when you eat, before you sleep, and when you want to relax. Like meditation and yoga, it can help us maintain our hormonal and emotional balance, even during periods of stress or disease.”

Dr. Kumar and fellow researchers found that music provided lasting benefits to elderly men with Alzheimer’s disease. The men were provided with music therapy for 30 to 40 minutes a day, five days a week, for a month. For weeks after joining in the musical program, the men showed less disruptive behavior, slept better, and became generally more active and cooperative.

One recent award-winning article called “Music, Memory and Alzheimer’s Disease: Is Music Recognition Spared in Dementia, and How Can It Be Assessed?” recently published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, likewise points to benefits of music for people with dementia. Canadian psychologists gave tests of music appreciation to people with severe dementia and 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. One 84-year-old woman with severe Alzheimer’s, for example, continued to sing old songs from her youth, and joined in whenever music was played to her. She twisted her face in disapproval when tunes were played wrongly, sometimes exclaiming “Oh, dear!”

The researchers reported that musical abilities seem to be located in areas of the brain generally unaffected by Alzheimer’s disease and concluded that people with dementia would likely enjoy more music in their environments. They are interested in hearing from any members of the public who have noticed musical appreciation in friends or family members with Alzheimer’s disease. You can e-mail your stories to Professor Jackie Duffin, duffinj@post.queensu.ca or Prof. Lola Cuddy, cuddyl@post.queensu.ca.

Music may be beneficial not just for those with Alzheimer’s, but for those who care for them as well. British researchers reported that playing an excerpt of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” seemed to bolster attention in both healthy older adults and those with Alzheimer’s disease. Music may even play a role in helping to ward off Alzheimer’s. Researchers from the Stritch School of Medicine at 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.

Music as Therapy

Nobody suggests that music can reverse the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, or take the place of a well-structured program of care-giving or medical treatment. Rather, music therapy may complement other forms of treatments. A familiar tune or old musical favorite may stir emotions and memories, prove soothing, and encourage social connections among those stressed by illness. It’s no surprise that more and more nursing homes and hospitals include a music therapist on staff.

While people with Alzheimer’s may lose the ability to speak or recognize loved ones as the disease takes its inexorable downward decline, many retain the ability to remember songs from long-ago childhoods. Singing a round of “Rock-a-bye Baby” may help to ease agitation, for example, during difficult times of the day, such as when the sun goes down or when moving from one room to another. Humming a few bars of “Home on the Range” may be comforting and reassuring to a person with Alzheimer’s disease who may not even recognize the loved one standing in front of them.

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 professionals in your area. But don’t be afraid to sing a song or hum along on your own.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.


Julie Klotter: “Music & Alzheimer’s: music therapy as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.” Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, April, 2001.

Cuddy LL, Duffin J: “Music, Memory and Alzheimer’s Disease: Is music Recognition Spared in Dementia, and How Can It Be Assessed?” Medical Hypotheses, 2005; 64: 229-235.

Thompson RG, Moulin CJ, Hayre S, Jones RW: “Music enhances category fluency in healthy older adults and Alzheimer’s disease patients.” The Research Institute for the Care of the Elderly, Bath, UK. Exp Aging Res. 2005 Jan-Mar;31(1):91-9.

Grant MD, Brody JA: “Musical experience and dementia.” Aging Clin Exp Res. 2004 Oct;16(5):403-5.


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