Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s Patients

Updated on June 13, 2020

Those who care for dementia sufferers understand the unique challenges involved. Thankfully, different therapies are constantly being tried and applied; music therapy can be a particularly effective option. Language and music are centered in different parts of the brain. Therefore, songs, which activate both centers, can stimulate a neural response that language alone cannot. Music can help Alzheimer’s patients in several ways.

Enhance Mood

Most people know intuitively that music can boost their mood, but they may not know why. Scientists are constantly uncovering new information, but some facts are clear. Sounds enter a human’s auditory system, which has a strong direct connection to the limbic system, the section of the brain that houses emotional response. This robust connection enables sound to elicit emotions when other stimuli fail. Pleasant, familiar sounds such as songs tend to initiate a positive emotional state. Hospitals have discovered that listening to favorite songs can help patients manage pain and heal faster.

This effect is particularly useful in dementia patients. As Alzheimer’s progresses, neural responses deteriorate. However, the limbic system remains mostly intact, so there are huge advantages to accessing that region of the brain. In care facilities and other institutional settings, individuals are often subjected to unpleasant sounds that may startle or confuse them. Hearing a familiar tune can be enjoyable rather than alarming, imparting a sense of calm.

Soothe Sundowners Syndrome

Alzheimer’s patients are often subject to sundowners syndrome, a condition triggered by the transition from day to night.  At the end of the day, patients may be confused, restless or belligerent. They may cry, resist taking medications and even lash out violently toward caregivers. While medications may help, non-drug options are often just as effective with no risk of side effects. Soothing after-dinner music can help by reducing agitation and increasing cooperation.

Improve Memory

Music is embedded in the history of humanity, which may be why humans can recognize familiar tunes in a fraction of a second. Sound connects to a part of the limbic system called the hippocampus, where long-term memories are stored. Because music and lyrics are heard so often, they become part of a person’s long-term memory bank, so reaching the hippocampus can access the knowledge of those songs. Patients who cannot remember what happened earlier in the day can sometimes recall song lyrics from decades ago. Once the hippocampus is unlocked, a dementia sufferer may recollect other long-term memories as well.

Aid Communication

Playing music for Alzheimer’s patients often encourages interaction such as tapping toes, humming a tune or swaying to the music. Anecdotal evidence suggests that dementia sufferers who have become mostly nonverbal will sometimes sing along to familiar songs. Moreover, the singing can reawaken communication skills, even leading to patients speak again in settings unrelated to the music.

Encourage Physical Activity

Exercise programs can help prevent loss of function and restore abilities that have fallen by the wayside. Music can be a bridge to physical activity, as upbeat songs help stimulate heart rate. Listening to music can make exercise sessions seem shorter, more fun and less arduous. Playing music, rather than just listening, helps restore balance. Improved equilibrium can enable patients to walk more steadily and avoid harmful falls.

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