Besides being a nice way to wind down on your commute, music might have additional emotional and cognitive benefits for Alzheimer’s patients.
Over the holidays, I went to visit my grandpa, who has severe Alzheimer’s and lives in an assisted living facility. When my mom and I walked into the facility’s café around lunchtime, he was sitting in his wheelchair with a pair of headphones on. I knew his condition was too advanced to be able to comprehend a podcast, so I asked mom what he was listening to. She responded that once a week around lunchtime, he had Music Therapy. Even though he had difficulty remembering most memories, he was able to recognize popular tunes from when he was growing up.
Music therapy itself can be conducted in several different ways. For some patients, simply listening to a recording of a favorite song from childhood can trigger a positive energy change. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, patients can remember and sing songs even in advanced stages, long after they’ve stopped recognizing names and faces. Some patients may also participate in live music therapy, in which they listen to live music and are able to engage or even participate in music-making themselves.
In 1996, the Oxford Academic Journal of Music Therapy conducted a study analyzing the effects of live music therapy on Alzheimer’s patients and their agitated behavior. Patients with “agitated behaviors” were ones who scored highly on the Agitation Behavior Scale (ABS) and showed increased restlessness, hyperactivity, or subjective distress. During the study, the subjects participated in small group music therapy sessions a few times a week over the course of several weeks. After analyzing the different behaviors, the researchers confirmed that patients were significantly less distressed both during and after music therapy, as compared to their scores on the ABS beforehand. While the music therapy study might be slightly dated, it has helped to pave the way for more studies to be done on the fascinating relationship between Alzheimer’s and music.
Recently, thanks to new brain-scanning technology, researchers and doctors have new and more concrete evidence to support music as a type of therapy. In Finland, researchers using MRI machines found that music taps into not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also employs large-scale neural networks. Recent research has also found that listening to music releases the brain chemical dopamine, which, similar to activities such as enjoying food or watching an exciting movie, can lead to positive feelings and a sense of being rewarded.
Because of the vast amounts of significant results, many nonprofits and publications have been founded to help fund and advance the practices of music therapy. A popular nonprofit, Alive Inside, created a documentary to show viewers firsthand how much both vocal and instrumental music can make a difference, and the profound impact that music and melody have on emotion and cognition. Other foundations, such as Music and Memory, have funded extensive research and promoted awareness for the phenomenon of music therapy.
One patient featured in Alive Inside, 92-year-old Henry Dryer, is described as “coming alive” after having his headphones put on and hearing some of his favorite tunes. Dryer, who rarely speaks or moves and spends most of his day slumped over in his wheelchair, is able to sing one of his favorite songs outloud and with perfect timing. The Alive Inside documentary also features six other patients and explores how music has shaped their journey with Alzheimer’s.
Besides helping patients with Alzheimer’s, music therapy has also been proven to reduce depression in older adults, as well as minimize stress, enhance social and emotional skills, and assess cognitive ability. In particular, due to the familiarity, predictability, and feelings of security associated with it, music therapy is useful for patients who commonly resist other types of treatment or therapy.
Alzheimer’s is quite possibly one of the most ominous prospects about aging and our lifespan. However, with new innovations and research like the effects of exercise on Alzheimer’s and music therapy, the future is looking brighter with each new discovery. Do you have a family member who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and want to Share Your Story? We want to hear from you!
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