New Research Shows How Music Helps Those with Alzheimer’s Disease & their Caregivers

For most of us, music has a significant impact on our lives. Songs that remind us of important life events, no matter how big or small, can elicit strong emotions and memories. These connections we form with music are extraordinarily resilient, so much so that they stay in the brain even when neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s take hold. This is the foundation of music therapy for dementia.

According to a recent study, music therapy can assist people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias to enhance their quality of life. Familiar music can alleviate neuropsychiatric symptoms while also boosting emotions, old memories, cognition, and physical movement.

Participating in special music programs such as choirs or simply enjoying music with friends and family can maximize its advantages for brain health and mental health.

Read on to learn more about the latest findings regarding Alzheimer’s disease and the beneficial effects of music.

Music Therapy as a Non-pharmacological Dementia Intervention

Music therapy is the practice of utilizing music to enhance mood and promote well-being. While drugs and lifestyle changes might help people with dementia manage their symptoms, a new study has found that music therapy can benefit people with dementia overall.

Scott Horowitz, a licensed professional counselor and clinical assistant professor in Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, explains: “Our sensory experiences as human beings are connected with our memories. For people with dementia or other cognitive impairments, often those associations remain even if other elements of their memory are impaired and impacted. You could play a piece of music that holds meaning for them—and that memory will be triggered.”

Clinical psychologist and board-certified music therapist Dr. Bethany Cook, PsyD, describes how music therapy helps people with dementia and their caregivers:

“It’s important to note that the best music to use are songs that the person with dementia used to listen to and love when they were [ages] 7ish to mid-20s,” says Dr. Cook.

“These foundational memories and songs are locked together in deeper vaults down windy mountain roads that dementia doesn’t seem to be able to fully crush. I’ve seen a person not recognize their spouse of 65 years but when I play their wedding song, this individual turns to their spouse and they recognize them and dance.”

The Positive Effects of Music Therapy

The study examined how music therapy may benefit patients with dementia and their caretakers. Individuals with dementia were recruited from two memory care facilities for the study. Caregivers were also asked to participate actively in the interventions.

The researchers used Musical Bridges to Memory, a 12-week intervention (MBM). The intervention includes a musical preference evaluation among adults with dementia and baseline assessment data such as social behaviors and dementia severity.

The intervention included caregiver training, live 45-minute concerts, and breakout sessions after the concerts. During the concerts, music therapists encouraged conversation and enabled follow-up in the breakout sessions. The researchers then conducted follow-up assessments, analyzing behaviors and asking for feedback from carers, using a neuropsychiatric symptoms questionnaire.

The intervention group had more nonverbal social behaviors than the control group. Participants with dementia, for example, made eye contact with caregivers and showed curiosity, focus, and calmness.

Caregivers also reported lower stress levels in relation to their loved one’s symptoms. Caregivers also said that the program improved the quality of their relationships by allowing them to connect with their loved ones.

Dr. Borna Bondkarpour, an associate professor of neurology at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago and the study author, highlighted the following findings:

“Our preliminary data show that music can help [with] improving social engagement between a person with dementia and their loved ones. It can also decrease stress levels in care partners.”

Study Limitations and Future Research Directions

The research reveals that music intervention benefits both patients with dementia and their caretakers. The study, however, had numerous shortcomings.

For example, the study couldn’t be a blind study or have randomized participants. Having a control group, on the other hand, was beneficial in analyzing the outcomes. The control group consisted of only one of the two memory care facilities, which might have contributed to the findings.

Since the trial was only 12 weeks long, the intervention’s long-term consequences were not assessed. The sample size was somewhat limited; thus, more data is required before experts can draw further conclusions.

How You Can Use Music to Benefit a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease

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

  • Avoid excessive stimulation
    When playing music, keep competing sounds to a minimum. Choose music that isn’t interrupted by ads, which might be distracting. Turn off the television. Close the door. Adjust the level to your loved one’s hearing capabilities.
  • Think about your loved one’s preferences. 
    What genres of music do they like? What music makes them think of good occasions in their life? Involve relatives and friends by asking them to construct playlists or suggest music.
  • Set the tone
    Play calming music or sing a soothing song to relax your loved one during dinner or a morning hygiene routine. Use more lively or quicker-paced music to lift your loved one’s spirits.
  • Promote movement
    Consider dancing with your loved one if at all possible. Encourage your loved one to clap or tap their feet to the beat.
  • Pay attention to how your loved one reacts
    If your loved one appears to prefer certain songs, play them often. Choose another song if your loved one has a bad reaction to a specific song or kind of music.
  • Sing along
    Singing along to music with your loved one may lift your spirits and strengthen your bond. Some preliminary research also suggests that musical memory works differently than other forms of memory and that singing might assist generate unique memories.

Remember that everyone is different, and music may not affect your loved one’s cognitive state or quality of life. More research is required to determine the specific effects of music on Alzheimer’s disease.

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