The first time I really interacted with somebody with Alzheimer’s disease was last year. There is a club at Colby where students go to a local center for adults with Alzheimer’s disease to hang out and talk with them. I was incredibly hesitant to go at first, because this neurodegenerative disease is an incredibly sad and heart-breaking one. However, after some thought, I decided that I rather try it, see how it goes, and hopefully bring a little bit of happiness into another person’s life.
While at my first visit, I noticed that one of the students had brought his guitar and was planning on singing to the patients there. I quickly realized that singing to the patients was something that at least one student tried to do every week. The fascinating part of all of this was that those with Alzheimer’s were immediately excited by the prospect of music and potentially remembered that students had come to play for them before. They knew the drill. They mostly sat around in couches in the room, while a couple people slowly stood so that they could dance and sway to the music. I was shocked. Even though they were forgetful, they seemed to implicitly know their Friday music ritual.
The other amazing part of all of this was that a few of the people requested music and seemed to relive some of the older days when they had a fully functioning memory. Their eyes got brighter, they were incredibly happy, and they would tell stories of how the music had impacted them in their lives. This is the experience that made me wonder about how music affected people with Alzheimer’s disease.
It is first important to establish that Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that causes memory loss, as well as poor thinking, behavioral, and social skills (1). Symptoms often appear when somebody is around 60, but they can start earlier or later (5). Frequent symptoms include: (1)
- Repeating and forgetting conversations
- Getting lost
- Forgetting family members or other people they are close to
- Misplacing possessions
- Difficulty expressing thoughts
There may also be changes in personality, which can include: (1)
- Mood swings
- Social withdrawal
- Distrust in others
Research suggests that music relieves stress and reduces anxiety and depression (3). I figured that with what I had seen at the Alzheimer’s center, and with this basic knowledge, that there had to be information out there regarding Alzheimer’s and music.
The importance of music in the field of dementia is just starting to be recognized and seen as important, because studies are reporting physical, cognitive, and psychological benefits. For example, there is a 2017 study that sought to determine if there was improvement in patients with Alzheimer’s who underwent music therapy (2). There were 42 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s who had music therapy for six weeks and then were assessed on multiple scales. Results showed that there was significant improvement in memory, orientation, depression, and anxiety in many mild to moderate cases, while there were also improvements in hallucinations, irritability, and language disorders in those with moderate Alzheimer’s (2). This is one example of a study in which music therapy was seen to improve cognitive, behavioral, and psychological changes in those with Alzheimer’s. By doing a simple Google search, it is evident that there are many more studies along these lines as well.
Interestingly, by helping reduce some possible symptoms of Alzheimer’s, this can also produce benefits for the main caregiver. If the person you are helping care for is expressing more pleasure and a better sense of well-being, wouldn’t that make your role easier? One study actually tested this out, with patients experiencing early stages of Alzheimer’s partaking in music therapy sessions. The patients did express this higher level of well-being, while the main caregivers felt less of an emotional burden (4).
While researching the possible link between Alzheimer’s and music, one of the most fascinating pieces of information I found involved the brain areas activated in musical memory. In young adults, there are certain cortical areas linked to musical memory. These areas are the anterior cingulate and ventral presupplementary motor area, which are part of a network that includes that anterior temporal, frontal polar, and insular cortices (2). Here comes the interesting part: these areas involved in musical memory in young adults were often less affected by Alzheimer’s than other brain areas (2). This was seen using neuroimaging biomarkers. So, musical memories are often preserved in this neurodegenerative disease because the areas linked to musical memory stay relatively intact.
This field is one that needs to continue to be examined. The aforementioned studies, as well as many others out there, are promising. Because we don’t know how to cure Alzheimer’s, shouldn’t we also explore these other options that could help alleviate some symptoms?
- Alzheimer’s Disease. (2018). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20350447.
- Gómez, M., & Gómez, J. (2017). Music Therapy and Alzheimer’s Disease: Cognitive, Psychological, and Behavioural Effects. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 32(5). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nrl.2015.12.003.
- Graff-Radford, J. (2018) Can Music Help Someone with Alzheimer’s? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/music-and-alzheimers/faq-20058173.
- Guetin, S., Portet, F., Picot, MC., Defez, C., Pose, C., Blayac, JP., Touchon, J. (2009) “[Impact of Music Therapy on Anxiety and Depression for Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and on the Burden Felt by the Main Caregiver (Feasibility Study)].” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 35(1). https://www.doi.org/10.1016/j.encep.2007.10.009.
- What Is Alzheimer’s Disease? (2017). National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-alzheimers-disease.