Music Can Be a Balm for People With Alzheimer’s Disease

December 22, 2017

Music can ease the agitation and anxiety that often afflicts those with Alzheimer’s disease. Beloved melodies and favorite songs and lyrics are known to boost mood and ease stress, and a growing body of research suggests that music — like art, dance and other creative forms of therapy — can enhance enjoyment and self-esteem and enrich the lives of people with dementia. Musical ability is also often long retained into the more advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s no surprise, then, that many senior care centers and Alzheimer’s support groups hold music and sing-along sessions in communities nationwide. And for those that don’t, integrating a music program into a community center, nursing home or your own home can be an invaluable addition to Alzheimer’s care.

A 2014 documentary called “Alive Inside!” showed how music can enliven even someone in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In one nursing home, a man named George with advanced dementia rarely speaks or responds. But once he is fitted with an iPod playing music from his youth, he springs back to life, talking and moving to the music as vivid memories of his younger days, sparked by the music, flood his mind.

The iPods were the brainchild of a music lover named Dan Cohen, who founded a nonprofit company called Music & Memory in 2010. Since them, the program has expanded to more than 1,000 nursing homes and senior centers across the country. The Music & Memory program trains nursing home staff, elder care workers and family members to create personalized song playlists for those with Alzheimer’s disease. The key is to select songs, musicians or bands that the person with dementia loved in their youth, typically between the ages of 15 and 30.

The effects of music on the brain have been well studied, and the potential benefits of music for those with Alzheimer’s disease is well documented.

In a small French study, five men and women in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease were given weekly music therapy sessions over 10 weeks. After the sessions, all of the patients expressed a sensation of wellbeing and pleasure. They related such sentiments as: “Music made me feel better, I feel more relaxed,” “I feel better,” “I didn’t know that music could have such an impact on me.” They also described how the music sparked old memories: “This music reminds me of my childhood”, “I imagined myself dancing just like I used to in the old days,” “This reminds me of my trip to Italy with my children.” Their anxiety levels dropped, and they felt less depressed.

Caregivers, too, got benefits. They felt less exhausted and overwhelmed, and their moods improved. And while music programs can be administered by a music therapist — there are some 7,000 who have been certified by the American Music Therapy Association — families can also share creative music experiences on their own at home or at a facility, even if a loved ones with Alzheimer’s is no longer able to engage in conversations.

In another 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.

Singing can also help. Researchers at George Mason University in Virginia who studied a group of elderly men and women with moderate to severe dementia who were living in a nursing home found that singing as part of a group led to improvements in thinking and memory skills and boosted mood. Participants in the study 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.”

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.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site.

Partial sources: 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.

Guetin S, Portet F, Picot MC, et al: “Impact of music therapy on anxiety and depression for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and on the burden felt by the main caregiver (feasibility study).” L’Encéphale, 2008.


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