Melodies Bring Alzheimer’s Patients Back to Life

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Do you remember music from your childhood? Most people start listening to music while they are babies and continue to enjoy it throughout their lives. Lullabies and nursery rhymes, rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues, classical compositions and jazz, music helps us tell stories, express emotions, create and shift moods, and communicate when words fail us.

People’s ability to enjoy and relate to music does not seem to be effected by the onset of cognitive impairment. Long after people are no longer able to recall names and recent activities, they can still sing their favorite songs, word for word.

We don’t yet understand exactly why music memory remains intact, while recent memories are erased or never processed. However, scientists do know that Alzheimer’s disease initially attacks the brain’s hippocampus, the region of the brain that takes in and processes new information. Scientists have also determined that a person’s music memory is stored in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which remains intact for a much longer time*. Therefore, we can still enjoy music with those with memory impairment, and help connect them to the associated emotions and memories. it a first dance, holidays and family gatherings, camping songs and music played in houses of worship.

Music therapy has been proven to effectively stimulate the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, music from the individuals young adult years, specifically ages 18-25, are most likely to evoke strong responses for engagement. If the patient is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, childhood music has been proven more effective.

Health care providers in hospitals and assisted living homes have been using music therapy recreationally with Alzheimer’s patients. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Concetta Tomaino, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, has studied the effects of music therapy for more than 30 years. In one of her studies, she found that 45 patients, with mid-to-late stage dementia, who had one hour of personalized music therapy, three times a week, for ten months, improved their cognitive-function test by an average of 50%.

The clip below is a part of the film entitled, “Alive Inside.” It shows a patient in a nursing home reacting to music in a positive way.

If you want to enhance a day for an Alzheimer patient, find out what type of music the person enjoyed the most in the past. Think expansively! Many people enjoy a range of music, including popular music from their youths, camp songs, music sung in houses of worship, and family favorites sung at holidays. Just make sure that the person enjoys the type of music and doesn’t associate it with bad memories. It would not be a good experience to subject someone to music they have never liked! Until you know how the person will react, monitor the reactions. If the person shows signs of distress, stop the music and try another type on another day. If the person responds positively, enjoy the music with them, and then ask them about what they think about when they hear the music.

* Janata, P. (2009) The Neural Architecture of Music-evoked autobiographical Memories. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 2579-2594.

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