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How to Use Music to Reconnect With a Dementia Patient

Musical memories remain after other memories have faded.

Key points

  • Dementia patients are significantly more socially engaged with their caregivers after music therapy.
  • Music also has benefits for caregivers, who are more relaxed and less anxious after music therapy sessions.
  • The brain regions involved in music memory are among the last to be affected by Alzheimer's and dementia.
An older woman interacts with a younger woman while the two hold hands.
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

As Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, “Where words fail, music speaks.”

In later stages of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia, patients may become unable to communicate verbally, which can take a toll on their relationships with family, friends, and caregivers, but a recent study from Northwestern University shows that music can become a bridge to communication.

Researchers assessed the impact of a 12-week music therapy program called "Musical Bridges to Memory" offered by the Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA) in Illinois.

Once a week, dementia patients and their caregivers were treated to a live 45-minute concert featuring songs from the patients’ youth, like selections from “Oklahama” or “The Sound of Music.” Both patients and loved ones were given simple instruments like tambourines and shakers and encouraged by music therapists to play, sing, and dance along with the music.

After the concert, patients were significantly more socially engaged with their caregivers. They were in a better mood, made more eye contact, were less easily distracted, and showed less agitation than they had before the session.

The music’s effects weren’t limited to the patients, either. The caregivers were also more relaxed and showed fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, which can affect people whose loved ones are living with dementia.

The program was such a positive experience for everyone that what had started as patient-caregiver pairs soon grew to include whole families.

“As the program progressed, caregivers invited multiple family members,” said Jeffrey Wolfe, a music therapist at ITA and leader of the Musical Bridges to Memory program. “It became a normalizing experience for the whole family. All could relate to their loved one despite their degree of dementia.”

Musical memories persist long after other types of memories have been lost to dementia. This is because the parts of the brain responsible for memories of music are affected much later in the disease’s progression than the parts of the brain responsible for memories of events, information, and even language.

In 2015, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, found that the ventral pre-supplementary motor area, which plays a role in planning and executing movements, and the caudal anterior cingulate, which helps us control our behavior, are the two brain areas most involved in encoding long-term musical memories.

In Alzheimer’s patients, these regions of the brain are also among the last to atrophy or show signs of disrupted glucose-metabolism, two key markers of the disease. As a result, patients with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia can retain the ability to dance, sing, and play musical instruments even after they’ve lost the ability to speak.

"Musical Bridges to Memory" demonstrates music’s potential to improve quality of life not only for dementia sufferers, but for their caregivers and loved ones.

“The family and friends of people with dementia also are affected by it,” says Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour, a Northwestern Medicine neurologist and the study’s primary investigator. “It's painful for them when they can't connect with a loved one. When language is no longer possible, music gives them a bridge to each other.”

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