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Alive Inside: Music for Alzheimer’s, Memory Loss & Dementia

Posted on | January 19, 2014 | No Comments

music and early Alzheimer's symptoms

Image Source: wsj.com

Music has been shown to help to delay the onset of memory decline as well as improve memory function even in the late stage of the disease. There are now even inexpensive music activity and educational programs on CD that provide meaningful activities to people with memory loss and Alzheimer’s. Even just listening to music can bring about immense joy and happiness for a person with Alzheimer’s – Watch this interview with Dr. Richard Isaacson, Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention & Treatment Program at NYP/Weill Cornell, to learn more about Alive Inside, a new documentary by Dan Cohen. Studies have shown that music therapy can help lower stress, improve depression and  decrease insomnia because it improves chemical regulation in the brain. Therapeutic effects of music therapy (when used properly)  for those with Alzheimer’s include: reduction of stress and agitation and  improvement in speech and communication.  Music therapy (by a certified therapist) is even known to facilitate improved memory and cognitive functioning, improve coordination of muscle movements and promote positive social interaction in a group.

Recent evidence suggests that lifelong musical experiences can biologically affect and improve brain function, with positive effects that may last into late life.  One study on music therapy published in the December 2013 issue of “Clinical Rehabilitation” report in Belgium looked at cognitive effects of music in a group of 25 women with dementia at the Public Psychiatric Hospital for 3 months.  Participants who listened to music for 30 minute sessions daily were compared to those who received talk therapy.  The results were a significant improvement in cognition in the group that listened to music daily-as evidenced by a rise from an average of 10 to 14 points on the Mini State Examination (MMSE).  There was no change in the control group of women with dementia who only received talk therapy.

Positive effects from music therapy have been observed to last as long as 8 weeks even after discontinuing the therapy.  Music therapy is known to have an astounding effect on improving social behavior and verbal communication as well as decreasing agitation and negative behavior in those with dementia.

One reason music helps with Alzheimer’s is that the rhythmic beat in music does NOT require cognitive or mental processing.  In fact, the sound of music is interpreted in the motor center of the brain which responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues.  Since mental processing is not required in order to engage in rhythmic music or singing, these skills can be performed by those with early Alzheimer’s symptoms, or even in the late stage of Alzheimer’s dementia.

Another positive effect of familiar music is that it evokes memory because it can trigger the association of a wide range of emotions attached to the music.  The response to specific songs is directly related to one’s personal experience.  For example; a calming piece of music for one person, may trigger sadness and loss in another individual who is reminded of a loved one they lost.

Listening to unfamiliar music (particularly classical music) can be very beneficial because it can bypass any negative memories or emotions and may help to stimulate a new response such as relaxation to help with stress.  On the other hand, if the nature of the connection to a specific song is unknown, there could be any range of emotional responses in the individual with dementia, so it’s very important to observe closely for any stress, agitation, or muscle tension and discontinue the music when appropriate.

Some of the best selections in music, that will evoke the strongest response and highest level of engagement, include picks from the individual’s young adult years from ages 18 through 25.

Music from an individual’s childhood, such as a folk song, works well to engage those in late stage dementia.

Stimulating music with percussive sounds (such as dance tunes) with quick tempos helps to promote movement; while sedative music (like ballads and lullabies) with slow tempos, little percussion, and unaccented beats, evokes more relaxation and is a perfect choice for the bedtime routine.  Stimulating music is good to encourage those who may tend to fall asleep during meals, for use as background music during exercise, or to facilitate movement during ADLs.

Music works very well for early Alzheimer’s symptoms such as memory loss as well as late stages of Alzheimer’s for those with high levels of agitation who are not able to communicate well.   Becoming engaged in music, physical exercise, dancing and other music activities can help to diffuse the agitation and redirect attention to a more positive outlet.

As the disease of Alzheimer’s progresses, those with dementia as well as friends and family members may experience a loss of emotional connection and closeness.  Music therapy can help to promote reciprocal engagement between care givers and care receivers to help them to reconnect with one another.

Listening to music (particularly classical music) has been shown to improve memory in those with Alzheimer’s disease as well.  The “Therapy for Memory program is available online at www.TherapyForMemory.com.   This program was designed by a team of healthcare professionals including a neurologist, psychologist and a nurse.  The CD was produced by professional musicians, specifically to offer a variety of brain stimulating activities to improve memory and help with Alzheimer’s disease.

Memories are known to form during sleep and listening to music while asleep has been shown to stimulate the brain while improving memory.

In addition to listening to the Therapy for Memory Activity and Educational Program on CD, there are several other ways to integrate music into the daily care plan of those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Some suggestions to be considered include:

  1. Set aside time every day to listen to favorite songs from childhood, high school, college years, early adulthood, and beyond. Try to listen to more upbeat familiar music either in the morning or afternoon for about 1 hour per day, and more relaxing familiar songs in the evening before bed.
  2. Keep in mind that perceptual changes can alter the way those with dementia hear and interpret music. Keep a close eye on the patient’s response and if you notice that they are having a negative experience or say it doesn’t sound good, turn the music off immediately.
  3. Songs that remind listeners of familiar events in the past may help to rekindle memories of past events. Look at old pictures from those events while listening to the music for a more powerful result.

For more ideas on how to incorporate music therapy or at-home music activities into the daily routine of those with Alzheimer’s click here to  purchase the book; Alzheimer’s Treatment/Alzheimer’s Prevention writing by Harvard trained neurologist, Dr. Richard Isaacson.

To learn more about scientific evidence for music therapy for those with Alzheimer’s disease, or to view a live demonstration of a music activity and educational program on CD, visit www.TherapyForMemory.com.


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Harvard-trained Neurologist, Richard S. Isaacson, M.D. currently serves as Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology, Vice Chair of Education, and Education Director of the McKnight Brain Institute in the Department of Neurology at the University of Miami (UM) Miller School of Medicine. He completed his residency in Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, and his medical internship at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, FL. Prior to joining UM, he served as Associate Medical Director of the Wien Center for Alzheimers disease and Memory Disorders at Mount Sinai.

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