The benefits of music for those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

This article was kindly written for the Music for Dementia 2020 website by Holly Clark | Community Manager | FirstCare.ie

There are millions of people who live with Dementia and Alzheimer’s worldwide. Due to an ageing population and no yet known cure or preventative pharmacological response, this number will only rise in the next few decades. Therefore, health professionals are increasingly turning to music to help enhance and enrich the quality of life for people living with dementia, whether they are elderly or have early onset dementia. Below we will explore some of the benefits of music for those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Music boosts brain activity
Music fires the neurons in your brain, and can improve cognitive performance. We now understand that music is processed across the ‘whole-brain’ rather than one specific brain region, as was previously thought. The acoustic blend of music is made up of many different elements, such as, timbre, pitch, rhythm. These elements of music are initially processed in the auditory cortex. When additional components of music come into play, such as memory and song meaning, the processing becomes wore widely distributed across the brain (Warren, 2008). This wide distribution mediates our behavioural response to music e.g. tapping our foot to the beat. There is an interesting article around this – 5 Reasons Why Music Boosts Brain Activity –  If those with Alzheimer’s are asked to sing along to the songs. Participants in this study performed better in cognitive and wellbeing tests after singing songs compared with those who merely listened to them, showing that it may slow down cognitive decline and help keep your brain healthy.

Jane Byrne from FirstCare.ie points out that there are  many types of dementia, each with their own causes and symptoms. “However, there are similarities across the board, which we need to combat. Dementia is so widespread nowadays that all healthcare professionals really have to stand  up and take notice.”

It can be a way to bond with your family member
Being the family member of someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s can be challenging , but music can provide a way to maintain and sustain your relationships. Whether your loved one is just beginning their dementia journey or has been living with dementia for several years, it’s likely that you will share memories related to music. Therefore, creating musical moments together, using this shared music, will help support your relationship and offer ways to be together and communicate with and through the music.

Music can help with managing your dementia
Living with dementia can be confusing and frightening, and music can help with managing some of these feelings and experiences. Researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that music can help to boost brain chemicals that improve mood such as serotonin and melatonin. This is independent of cognitive performance, so patients can still gain benefits from listening to music in the later stages of the disease.

Music may improve the memory of those with Alzheimer’s
A meta analysis conducted in a scientific publication on dementia, though cautioning that the data is in its early stages, found promising evidence that listening to music can improve the memory of those with Alzheimer’s disease, based on 4 randomized controlled trials.¹

The use of music can reduce reliance on medication, and reduce agitation.²
The British Association for Music Therapy states that music can have a range of benefits, not least that it may help people living with dementia in reducing their use of medication, and that it may reduce some of the symptoms, such as agitation. This would lead to an overall better quality of life, and has been supported by a variety of theory and research.

As we have seen, music can have many positive effects on those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. What is particularly exciting is that research and theory is only in its infancy: as we find out more we will uncover even more persuasive reasons that music should be an integral part of therapy for people living with dementia.


Notes

¹ ‘Singing for the Brain’: A qualitative study exploring the health and well-being benefits of singing for people with dementia and their carers

² Effects of Music on Agitation in Dementia: A Meta-Analysis

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