The Transformative Effect of Music on Alzheimer’s Patients

Music is being used to transform Alzheimer’s patients. Scientific studies show that Alzheimer’s patients are often able to remember and communicate while listening to music that is familiar to them. Even people with advanced dementia are often stimulated by music.

One reason for this transformation is that music is processed differently from verbal or written information. Music is a whole-brain activity. It works on both the cortical (i.e. the thinking part of the brain), and the sub-cortical (i.e. the parts of the brain responsible for reflexive, non-thinking and emotions). For this reason, people with dementia are able to react to music on a different level.

Music has a close relationship with unconscious emotions and our inner feelings that are meaningful even if the person can’t remember who they are. Think about how listening to music effects your mood. Familiar songs often give us a vivid mental picture of a specific memory. Emotions and memory are linked which is likely the reason music can trigger memories. Depending on the person, it can bring on emotions from joy to irritation.

Music has become so recognized as helping older adults that in 1992 the U.S. Senate passed the Music Therapy for Older Americans Act into law. A special committee on aging introduced and passed Bill S.1723: Special Committee on Aging: “Forever Young; Music and Aging.” It included funding for music therapy, education, training and the distribution of information on music therapy and older adults.

Many nursing homes and assisted living are introducing programs that follow this trend. Some facilities have begun requesting donations of gently used iPods and MP3 players that are used to download popular old-time music that is familiar to the residents. The results have been miraculous. Residents who have not spoken for years are revived. They become animated, open their eyes and speak about how makes them feel. This result can last for several minutes even after the music ends.

In one Brooklyn New York nursing home a resident named Henry participated in such a program. He is shown in a YouTube video sitting in his wheelchair with his head hanging and his eyes closed. When a staff member places an iPod on his head and starts playing a Cab Calloway performance, he is obviously moved. He opened his eyes and spoke about his memories associated with the music.

Such results are reviving hope that music may be used as a way to communicate with Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients. It is still not known the total extent music might be applied to treat Alzheimer’s patients, but one thing is for certain… music does make a difference.