Many associate forgetfulness with old age, but one disease diagnosed primarily in elderly patients severely affects the memory of more than six million Americans. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting patients over the age of 65. The disease causes changes in the brain, which initially cause mild memory issues that can go undetected for years. In later stages of the condition, patients may not be able to talk with others or seem aware of things happening around them. This deadly disease has no cure, but research regarding new treatments, early detection, and music therapy offers hope.According to the Alzheimer’s Association, women account for about two-thirds of those diagnosed with the disease. Some diseases, such as breast cancer, garner more attention and headlines than Alzheimer’s. However, while women in the U.S. have a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, they have a 1 in 5 chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The disease ranks as the sixth deadliest in the nation.

No currently available treatments can cure Alzheimer’s. Just five currently available medications treat the symptoms of the disease. Researchers hope new drugs will interrupt the disease’s development or slow down its progress. Preventive treatments may also prove successful in people born with a gene that always causes Alzheimer’s. Some current research also focuses on ways to detect the disease earlier instead of waiting to see evidence of worsening symptoms. Early detection may help prevent some of the damage Alzheimer’s causes in the brain.

Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s Patients

Since the disease currently has no cure, others focus on ways to improve a patient’s quality of life. Music offers a host of benefits for Alzheimer’s patients in varying stages of the disease. Studies show music therapy improves a patient’s focus, improves their ability to communicate with those close to them, and may lower their dependence on psychiatric drugs.

With Alzheimer’s patients, music offers a variety of benefits at each stage of the disease. This is especially true in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, when patients may disconnect from anything happening around them and experience an inability to communicate and connect with others verbally.

A visible change often takes place when Alzheimer’s patients hear music. They may perk up and take a renewed interest in their surroundings. Upon hearing music, they might sing, dance, or clap their hands. Responses to rhythm bypass the typical response process in the brain. Instead, the brain responds to the music directly and orders the body to respond by clapping, swaying, or humming to the music.

Patients in the early stages of the disease may benefit from going out dancing or attending a concert. Respect their likes and dislikes, even about the music they once liked. Brain changes may affect their perception of the music. Playing an instrument may be enjoyable for those who once played. Note and play favorite pieces, such as songs played at a wedding, which serve to spark happy memories.

As the disease progresses, playing music may help improve balance while walking. Music can also be used to boost the mood of a person with Alzheimer’s, while more soothing music often helps with nighttime behavior issues. In later stages, the same favorite pieces might jog a person’s memory when discussing past events. Music often motivates advanced Alzheimer’s patients to participate in exercise. Relaxing music also soothes and provides comfort.

How Music Affects the Brain

Researchers believe music stimulates many parts of the brain at the same time, such as those areas affecting language, mood, and movement, along with the senses of hearing, sight, sound, and touch. Researchers at the University of California, Davis pinpointed an area of the brain which stores memories by linking them to familiar songs and the emotions associated with those memories.

The effect a song will have on someone can often be determined by a person’s past emotional experience with that song. If the song reminds someone of breaking up with an old boyfriend, their response could be less positive than a song associated with happier memories. Alzheimer’s patients might show distress in such a situation by acting agitated or tense or making grimacing facial expressions.

Music popular when a person was between the ages of 18-25 often promotes the most positive response. However, typical childhood songs or music that is unfamiliar may also be effective — often due to a lack of an emotional connection.

Depending on the type of music, music therapy may help accomplish a variety of things. Stimulating music with a quick tempo and percussion can motivate patients to take action or stay awake. Sedating music might prove more soothing. This type of music works well with patients who feel agitated or overloaded by their environment. In later stages, the disease causes patients to stop showing affection to others, but through dance or swaying to the music, they may move closer to others or make affectionate gestures.

Benefits of Music Therapy for Alzheimer's Patients

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as the “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Music therapy is used for a variety of special populations, including those living with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. Music can be used as a tool to give seniors a wide array of therapeutic benefits.

It can improve mood and the immune system.

Music therapy can be used as an instant mood booster. While you might not see a music therapist specifically, you have likely experienced the jolt of happiness that comes when you listen to a favorite song or a sense of comfort that arrives when you hear a song that your grandmother once sang to you. Adults with dementia can also experience these same feelings, giving them relief from anxiety and depression that often accompanies the disease.

In addition, singing along to songs can increase lung capacity as well as give a boost of oxygen to the brain. Singing and music interventions can even improve immune response.

It encourages movement.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of music therapy is the increased healthy movement. Music can be the gateway to purposeful movement, whether that is clapping, swaying, or dancing. In the proper therapeutic setting, this movement can help the person increase strength, balance, and endurance, which can lead to decreased fall risk and increased motor function.

It's good for communication.

Anyone who has worked with or cared for someone living with dementia knows that verbal communication is not always the most effective. Instead, body language and other types of nonverbal communication take a front seat when trying to give the person a pleasant and comfortable interaction. Music is the perfect addition to dementia communication, offering a new way to increase social interaction and positive experiences.

It's accessible.

Finally, you don’t have to be a music therapist to use music in your interactions with those living with dementia. You can make the effort to use music throughout your day together, whether it is by turning on a favorite playlist to increase energy in the morning or humming a favorite hymn to encourage relaxation in the evening.

What a Music Therapist Does

A music therapist is trained to use music as a tool to help participants meet their wellness goals, which include the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of those they serve. In order for them to develop a treatment plan, they will begin with an assessment to learn more about the participant’s medical history, personal history, preferences, and challenges. Then, they will develop a plan of care that details music interventions that will help the participant work toward those goals.

Music therapists use a variety of interventions with participants, including sing-a-long sessions, breathing exercises, drumming, and other movements set to music. They can even play music for the participant, which is something you see often with those living with dementia, especially in the later stages of the disease. For example, it is common for music therapists to be on the staff of hospice organizations, arriving to play the harp or other instrument for seniors who receive hospice care.

Carrying Out Music Therapy Yourself to Help Alzheimer's

While caregivers might not be certified music therapists, it is very common to find music interventions playing a key role in the life of a memory care community. Anyone, including family members, can use music interventions to promote comfort and joy in the senior as well as in the caregiver. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Choose songs that mean something to them.

Music choice is crucial when it comes to giving seniors a positive interaction. Keep in mind that current music will likely not have any memory tied to it, so avoid songs you might hear on a Top 10 radio station. Instead, focus on finding music that would have been a part of their life in childhood or early adulthood. If you aren’t sure what songs mean the most to them, try finding a playlist online with songs from years when they would have been a young adult. Then, watch their reactions to specific songs until you curate a playlist just for them.

You might find luck choosing songs that match up with their personal history as well. For example, hymns might be perfect for someone who grew up in the church, while the fight song of their college might be a fun addition for someone who played sports at their alma mater.

Pick the right music style.

Background music is the perfect way to set an atmosphere, so use it wisely. For example, try an upbeat playlist in the morning to increase energy for the day. In the late afternoon, try a more relaxing playlist that will encourage feelings of peace and comfort to help with any anxiety, wandering, or insomnia.

It’s also important to pay attention to potential overstimulation. Playing music loudly while you are trying to have a conversation or while you are banging pots and pans when making breakfast might not be the best idea.

Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues.

Keep an eye and ear out for how the person responds to music as you play it. You’ll be able to tell if they like it, if they don’t, and if they want to engage with it almost immediately. A smile, clapping, or even humming along can mean they like the song and are engaged. Looking away can mean they aren’t a fan, or they are not ready to engage with music at the moment.

Encourage more appreciation for music.

You can make music a part of your visit or your day with someone living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Try to make music your go-to activity instead of the television. Work together to create multiple playlists of music you can play throughout the day based on the person’s preferences and temperament.

Learn More about Music Therapy for Alzheimer's Patients

Music is a wonderful, research-backed tool that can enhance the quality of life for those living with dementia. It can improve emotional and physical health while offering a new way for the person to interact with the world around them.

Learn more about music and its use in the senior population by watching our webinar, “The Power of Music Therapy.” Host Melissa Lee connects with licensed and nationally board-certified music therapists Allison Lockhart and Hannah Rhinehart from The George Center Foundation to examine what we know about the connection between music and memory.

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