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Using Music in Alzheimer's Disease

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Updated November 08, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Do you have a loved one with Alzheimer's or another kind of dementia? If so, you may be interested to know that music might be able to connect you with your family member in a way that words cannot.

Many research studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, have cited situations where music has been able to evoke a response or a memory in people with Alzheimer's. For example, your mother may have difficulty finding the right words to use, but be able to sing an entire song with no problem.

One research project studied people with Alzheimer's and found that their memory for music was not affected by the disease: they performed similarly to those without Alzheimer's in recognizing songs and lyrics. Although that's certainly not true for everyone with dementia, I've seen numerous people who could play complete songs on the piano or sing every word to an older song, even as they were well into the middle stages of Alzheimer's and could not remember the names of family members.

These lasting memories of music are likely an important factor in understanding why its use to treat and interact with those who have dementia can be beneficial. Research studies have demonstrated that music is an effective way to provide meaningful activities, reduce challenging behaviors and decrease feelings of anxiety and depression in Alzheimer's. Many of us enjoy and benefit from listening to music, and this often does not change after someone develops Alzheimer's.

Using Music in the Different Stages of Alzheimer's Disease

Music in Early Stage Alzheimer’s

In the early stages of Alzheimer's, many people enjoy playing music or singing. Encourage them to continue to be involved in music; it may be an area in which they can feel success and accomplishment, and be encouraged by its beauty.

You can also make compilation recordings of their favorite songs, which are often songs or music that date back to their younger and middle years. Some older adults may have strong spiritual beliefs and will appreciate songs of faith.

Music in Middle Stage Alzheimer’s

Some people in the middle stages of Alzheimer's can continue to play the piano (or whichever instrument they may have played) well, and benefit from it. Others may become frustrated when they forget the chord or can't read the music.

In the middle stages, when behaviors can sometimes be challenging, music is an often-effective way to distract someone. A nurse aide that I know, for example, almost always sings a song with the person she's helping while they walk together. The person walks farther because he's singing along, and has a more enjoyable time getting his daily exercises accomplished.

Music may also be beneficial to mood and sleep patterns for people with Alzheimer's. A study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine was conducted with 20 male patients who had a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer's at a nursing home. These men participated in music therapy five times a week for four weeks. Following the four weeks, their melatonin levels were tested and had significantly increased—and remained elevated even six weeks after the conclusion of the music therapy programming. Therapists also noted in the patients an improved ability to learn the songs and lyrics, increased social interaction, and a more relaxed and calm mood among participants.

Music in Late Stage Alzheimer’s

In the later stages of Alzheimer's, music is often used as a way to connect with a loved one and evoke a response. People may enjoy listening to the recordings you made in the earlier stages of dementia of their favorite songs.

Familiar music may be able to calm someone who's restless or uncomfortable in the end stages of life. Some people with severe Alzheimer's will mouth the words of a familiar song upon hearing it, and visibly relax and rest in the midst of music.

Sources:

Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 6 (Nov 1999): 49-57. Music therapy increases serum melatonin levels in patients with Alzheimer's disease. Accessed October 26, 2012. http://www.alternative-therapies.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/archives.main

Alzheimer’s Association. Music, Art and Alzheimer’s. Accessed October 17, 2012. http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-music-art-therapy.asp#music

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Education and Care: Music. Accessed October 17, 2012. http://www.alzfdn.org/EducationandCare/musictherapy.html

Boston University. Music Boosts Memory in Alzheimer’s. Accessed October 17, 2012. http://www.bu.edu/today/2010/music-boosts-memory-in-alzheimer%E2%80%99s/

Medical Hypotheses. Music, memory, and Alzheimer's disease: is music recognition spared in dementia, and how can it be assessed? Accessed October 17, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15607545

Neuropsychology Review. Memory for music in Alzheimer's disease: unforgettable? Accessed October 17, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19214750

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