Communicating Beyond the Disease: Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients

According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the US, although some studies suggest it may even come in third. The Centers for Disease Control ranked Parkinson’s the fourteenth cause of death. And dementia more broadly and other neuro-degenerative diseases affect more than 4.5 million people in the US alone, and a 2013 report estimated that it has affected more than 35 million worldwide. You might be wondering what this has to do with music. Well, while there are no cures per say for dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, there are definitely preventative measures that can be taken as well as techniques and therapies that can improve the quality of life for someone suffering from these diseases and even slow the advancement of the disease. 

Here’s where music comes in: multiple studies have suggested that music therapy can reduce cognitive decline, especially when started as early as possible. But there are different ways that music and music therapy can be incorporated into a patient’s life and treatment and each has slightly different effects. 

Listening to music, for example, can slow the decrease of cognitive abilities for patients with mild cases of Alzheimer’s and some music can cause a “stabilization or improvement in self-consciousness of AD [Alzheimer’s Disease] in mild or moderate stage.” Interestingly, researchers have found that the more familiar a patient is with the piece of music, the greater the results. Singing songs is also a great way to help patients retain and recall memories, as well as reduce neuropsychiatric symptoms. And strangely enough, “sad” music–especially in karaoke style!–has been shown to be most effective for the recall of autobiographical experiences in dementia patients. In fact, music paired with another activity of many different kinds–singing as well as dancing, rhythmic movements, and playing instruments, e.g.–yielded more improvements in terms of cognitive status, in comparison to just listening to music alone without doing an activity. Music also helps patients remember things in the present–not just call up long-buried memories: when verbal content or text is accompanied with rhythm, percussion, or even when it is sung, the patient is more likely to remember it: Researchers found that music could “enhance the brain encoding capacity of verbal information compared with spoken.”
How does music do all this? According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music is a form of sensory stimulation, which provokes responses due to the familiarity, predictability, and feelings of security associated with it.” Listening to music “can help to hold our attention, evoke emotions, and stimulate visual images.” All of this aids in the calling up of memories and explains why sad songs, which perhaps call up particularly strong emotions, are even more effective for memory recall. 

Of course, as stated above, music therapy is not a cure for dementia, AD or parkinson’s. Many of the results enumerated in the studies cited here were slight and/or measured over long periods of time. There also needs to be more studies and scientific research done to fully understand the effects and mechanisms of music on neurodegenerative disease patients. However, because music has no side effects, is safe and easy to practice, it is a treatment worth pursuing. And even putting aside the considerable cognitive improvements it most likely promotes, as we know from many of my other posts (“Music as Panacea,” “Music as Medicine,” and “Music Education for Children with Special Needs,” for example), music has the incredible ability to reduce stress and anxiety as well as improve mood and outlook. 
Linda Maguire, the author of a study on singing and brain activity, wrote, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s.” Through music, you can communicate through and beyond the disease.