Is Music Magical for Dementia?

March 30, 2021|Aging, Dementia

Why can people with Dementia/Alzheimer’s remember all the words to their favorite song but not their name or the face of a loved one? Isn’t it a mystery the way our brains function and age? Scientists have discovered so much, yet there are still a multitude of unanswered questions. Here are some interesting findings regarding music and long-term memory:

  • “Certain areas of the brain, the caudal anterior cingulate and ventral pre-supplementary motor area, to be exact, are significantly more involved in neural processes and coding of very familiar music than recently listened to or less familiar music” (Jacobsen et. al, 2015).
  • “Regions identified to encode musical memory showed substantially minimal cortical atrophy as compared to the rest of the brain” in 20 individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease (Jacobsen et. al, 2015).

Why is this significant? In studying brain processes and analyzing reactions, music therapists can modulate live music to fill the needs of clients experiencing memory loss or neural degeneration. The key to optimal treatment results? Patient-preferred, familiar music. But that’s not all, neuroscience is continually discovering new ways that music and memory connect.

Music enhances motivation. Without motivation, it can be incredibly difficult to complete even the smallest of tasks. 

Consider a fairly undesirable task, such as cleaning the house. While some may look forward to the fresh feeling of that clean home, to the hands and knees, tedious scrubbing might not sound so appealing. Now take that same task and play your favorite song/artist/album over the loudspeakers. Suddenly you’re gliding through the house, pouring emotion into the sponge, mopping to the beat. Music enhances motivation. Without motivation, it can be incredibly difficult to complete even the smallest of tasks. Add the increased levels of pain and reduced flexibility that are associated with aging to a lack of motivation and those tasks become exponentially more difficult.

The same applies for engagement. Keep the concept, but let’s shift the scenario. Your loved one is living with dementia and having trouble holding a conversation with you; they’re getting distracted by everything around them. You want to savor every moment with them but aren’t sure how to connect. Add a music therapist to the equation. The MT navigates a conversation of happy memories together, and settles on a familiar song, one which they used to sing to you, reminds you of a trip together, or simply of their character. Maybe, somewhere, a switch flips on in their brain. Suddenly, they’re holding your hands, looking into your eyes, and singing. You share a blissful moment together, not worrying about the future, but giving gratitude for the present. Of course, every individual will react differently, some might not react at all, but it’s always worth an attempt to improve quality of life.

Recent evidence suggests that even clients with Dementia may still be able to form new neural connections.

Here the cognitive therapeutic goal might have been to improve attention span. Therapeutic goals need to be realistic. Likely, a goal of complete cognitive orientation might not be reasonable for an individual experiencing dementia. The neural connection to specific memories fades. But recent evidence suggests that even clients with Dementia may still be able to form new neural connections. Music can be magical in the lives of people with Dementia. Despite the challenges, we can support a higher quality of life for that individual amidst the confusion. As music therapists, we collaborate with the interdisciplinary team, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, chaplains, social workers, nurses, doctors, and more. In doing this, we can combine the most beneficial qualities of each discipline to uniquely help clients meet their goals.

Follow the citation below for further reading of the (Jacobsen et. al, 2015) article, entitled “Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease”, and stay tuned on our blog for more discussion of how and why music therapy can support individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones.

Jacobsen, J. H., Stelzer, J., Fritz, T. H., Chételat, G., La Joie, R., & Turner, R. (2015). Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Brain, 138(8), 2438-2450. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awv135