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Playing Music or Singing Has Benefits for People with Dementia

August 19, 2021

Singing or playing a musical instrument is beneficial for people with dementia or serious memory problems, a new analysis found. Actively participating in music programs led to a small but significant boost in memory and thinking skills. Musical participation also showed promise in improving emotional well-being and quality of life.

For the study, researchers pooled results from nine previously published studies on the effects of music on cognitive skills and mood. The studies involved 495 men and women over 65 who had Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, or with mild cognitive impairment, a memory disorder that can progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

The studies looked specifically at active music making, in which participants actively participated in playing a musical instrument or singing in a group, rather than passively listening to music or songs. Participants engaged in these activities anywhere from one to five times a week, during music sessions that lasted anywhere from half an hour to two hours. The music sessions were conducted at community or senior care centers, or at nursing homes.

Older men and women with mild cognitive impairment or dementia who participated in music programs lasting anywhere from four to 40 weeks tended to score higher on tests of memory and thinking skills than their peers with similar memory problems who did not participate in a music program. 

Those who participated in a music program also had higher scores on assessments of quality of life and emotional well-being. There were some suggestions that playing a musical instrument or singing might help to ease anxiety and symptoms of depression as well. The social benefits of playing music in a group might also contribute to the overall music benefits, as social interaction has been associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are excited to see these results because participating in music, like singing in a choir or playing in a drum circle, is a safe, engaging activity that our research demonstrates can support cognition at a critical time for older adults facing cognitive decline,” said lead author Jennie L. Dorris, of the University of Pittsburgh.

The findings add to growing evidence that music can have measurable benefits for those with Alzheimer’s disease. 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. Playing favorite music or songs from their childhood or young adult years may be particularly soothing.
  • Choose music to set the mood you’re hoping to create. Quiet music may be suitable before bedtime, whereas soft but upbeat tunes may be appropriate for a special birthday celebration.
  • Avoid music that may be too loud or interrupted by noisy commercials. Too much stimulation can cause confusion and agitation. Turn off the TV if music is playing to avoid overstimulation.
  • Encourage those with Alzheimer’s to clap or sing along or play a musical instrument. Supplement music with fond reminiscences and family photos.

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 caring for anyone with Alzheimer’s disease, this and other studies suggest.

There is also a moving documentary called “Alive Inside” about the power of music and Alzheimer’s disease. You can learn more at http://www.aliveinside.us/

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Jennie L. Dorris, MM; Stephen Neely PhD; Lauren Terhorst PhD; et al: “Effects of music participation for mild cognitive impairment and dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, May 18, 2021

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