Music has a positive effect on dementia

Anyone who’s had the chills when listening to a favourite tune knows how powerful a trigger music can be for human emotions.

Thankfully the part of the brain responsible for that emotional response isn’t affected by Alzheimer’s disease, say researchers from the University of Utah. And the discovery has led the researchers to investigate music as a possible treatment for people with dementia.

Writing in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, the experts suggest music-based treatment may help reduce anxiety in dementia patients.

“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety,” says Jeff Anderson, a University of Utah associate professor in radiology and contributing author to the study. “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”

During the study, researchers helped volunteers with Alzheimer’s select meaningful songs and then play them on a portable music player. The volunteers’ brains were scanned while listening to their music, and the scans showed parts of their brains lit up when music was played compared to when they were listening to silence. The scans, say the researchers, show that music activates the brain, making several regions of the brain communicate with each other.

“In our society, the diagnoses of dementia are snowballing and are taxing resources to the max,” says Norman Foster, director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care at the university. “No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient’s quality of life.”

Transformation through song

In the UK, one person develops dementia every three minutes, says Alzheimer’s Society. However the charity knows the effect music can have on someone with dementia’s quality of life thanks to its Singing for the Brain sessions, held at Alzheimer’s Society groups across the country. However rather than simply listening to music, those attending Singing for the Brain sessions join in singing a wide variety of familiar and new songs.

According to Dr James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer’s Society, these groups show what a positive effect music can have on people with dementia.

“People who may be quiet or reserved can be transformed when they hear a song they recognise – joining in singing and even having a dance,” he says. “This [University of Utah] study suggests that this transformation could be in part due to parts of the brain connecting better for a brief time after hearing music. Further research is needed to help understand the longer-term effects of music and help show that it’s not only drugs that can help people manage with dementia.

“Dementia is a devastating condition, slowly stripping people of their memories, relationships and identities. It’s so important to still include people with dementia in social activities – no one should have to face it alone.”

Dementia Action Week takes place from May 21 – 27, 2018. To find out how you could get involved and make small actions that could make a huge difference for people living with dementia, visit the Alzheimer’s Society website.