Music is closely tied to our memories and emotions. When we hear a certain song, we may re-experience memories we associate with that song, like the first time we danced with someone, a child’s first steps, a graduation ceremony, or other significant life events.

Music is also known to ease stress and keep us attentive or energized. Instrumental or classical music is often used in medical and dental settings to relax patients with anxiety, improve the healing process, and reduce pain.

For people who struggle with dementia, especially associated with Alzheimer’s disease, music can help to reduce symptoms, especially anxiety or restlessness. Playing music or listening to one’s favorite music can also improve memory, which can slow the progression of the disease.

How Does the Brain Process Music?

Using music to help Alzheimer’s patients starts with understanding how the brain processes sound, especially music. The auditory parts of the brain are hierarchically organized, meaning that areas lower in the hierarchy pass information higher up – although this process is rarely just one way.

Sound waves enter the ears, vibrating the ear drum, and then move to the small bones and hairs in the cochlea; the middle and inner ear then transmit those vibrations through the auditory nerve as electrical signals. The electrical impulses of sounds go to the primary auditory cortex, where the signals are coded, and then passed to the cerebral cortex.

As music is processed through the brain, it interacts with areas associated with emotion, memory, and even body movement.

Different parts of the brain seem to process different aspects of music.

  • Pitch involves the anterior and posterior superior temporal lobes.
  • Tempo or time information impacts some parts of the hippocampus.
  • Timbre can trigger activity in the temporal lobes, especially when music is perceived as flat or mechanical.
  • Meaning, which is attributed to even instrumental compositions, is processed by the brain.
  • Emotion is applied when music triggers a combination of brain regions like the amygdala, hippocampus, and their cortical and subcortical connections.

Well-chosen music can activate areas of the brain that may be impacted by Alzheimer’s, which can in turn relieve symptoms and slow the progress of the disease overall.

Medical Studies on Music and the Impact on Alzheimer’s Patients

Some medical research has been devoted to understanding how music can help people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have found the following:

  • Music evokes emotion, even in advanced Alzheimer’s patients, which helps them remember certain activities or make subconscious associations with them.
  • Pairing music with daily activities helps to improve cognition, including recognition of daily routines.
  • Musical aptitude and appreciation are two abilities that remain the longest in the brain during the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Music can increase emotional closeness with caretakers while Alzheimer’s can take away a person’s ability to emotionally bond with their caretakers.

One study found that music therapy reduced agitation in patients with dementia. An overview of the medical literature found that music therapy, when included as part of a larger treatment plan, reduced anxiety and stress levels with as little as two 30-minute sessions of music therapy per week.

Another review of 25 trials involving patients with stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease, along with other neurological conditions, concluded that music is a great therapeutic approach to reducing anxiety and depression in people who suffer serious medical conditions, including those impacting cognition, memory, and emotions. Improvements in self-esteem, mood, and quality of life were reported.

Best of all, music has no side effects, unlike prescription medications, so using music in conjunction with scientific-based medical treatments can improve overall success.

A group of Alzheimer’s patients who listened to self-selected music once a week for a year and a half showed significant improvement in depression and anxiety compared to a control group who read. Even more significant improvements in mood, memory, and physical control were seen in studies where Alzheimer’s patients interacted with musical instruments, sang songs, or worked with a music therapist; however, even the passive act of listening to music can confer some benefit.

The understanding of both ambient and foreground music on dementia patients can help caregivers of all kinds, both professional and family, to better approach this condition and keep someone suffering from this disease as happy as possible for as long as possible.

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How Can Music Ease Dementia Patients?

Based on medical studies, here are some suggestions for how medical professionals, caregivers, and loved ones can help dementia patients using music.

  • Family: Since music can be a way for Alzheimer’s patients to bond with their caregivers, spending time with a loved one who has this disease and listening to their favorite songs can be a great way to build emotional support and care. The person may share their memories with you, and recounting their lives can be a great way for them to build mental resilience.They may also re-associate these memories with the song, which again strengthens recall through neural pathways. During this time together, the person will also begin to associate their favorite music and good memories with you, their caregiver, whether you’re a friend, family member, or professional caregiver. This can help to build a trusting relationship, which will remain in place as the early stages of dementia progress.
  • Medical settings: When Alzheimer’s symptoms progress and a person requires more professional help, they may move into a nursing home. This environment provides medical support 24/7 to people who may wander, suffer from associated medical conditions, and experience periods of agitation or restlessness. This environment will be unfamiliar and a person with Alzheimer’s does not have the ability to process new information very well or form new memories easily. A survey of nursing homes found that playing soothing music during mealtimes – which can be loud and chaotic otherwise – helped to ease distress related to the environment. Overall, music improved stress responses.

Applying soothing music, using genres that were popular throughout the individual’s lifetime, and using background music during activities or visiting hours can boost overall quality of life for patients with Alzheimer’s as their condition progresses.