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Can music therapy really help dementia patients?

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

A few months ago a close friend sent me a video entitled “Gait training for Parkinson’s patient using music”. The video documents a mid-late Parkinson’s patient struggling to walk with his aid – until the music starts. Suddenly the walker is abandoned and the patient seems to break into a dance like motion humming along to the music. At first I was skeptical. Yes, I have heard about and read  much of the research showing the benefits of music for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, but this seemed extreme… until I witnessed for myself the  power of music as a means of therapy for dementia patients.

My mother in law had recently suffered a fall and was in the hospital awaiting surgery on hip. Being both in pain and in unfamiliar surroundings she was understandably agitated and non-cooperative with the nursing staff. We were really at a loss and then I remembered the above-mentioned video. I took out my phone and started playing some Frank Sinatra songs. The effect was instantaneous. It was if my mother in law had just received a sedative and the nurses were able to proceed and prep my mother in law for her surgery. While not every dementia patient will respond the same there are enough first-hand stories out there to attest to its benefits.

Why and what stages of dementia benefit most from music is still up for debate but here are some of the major theories.

  1. Music triggers memories from youth – According to neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, “”Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” This seems to be backed up by data presented in a 2010 Boston University study that showed that music has the power to unlock past memories more then other means. This same study was also one of the first to claim that music is not only beneficial for recalling past memories, it actually can help dementia patients process and retain new information.

  2. Music acts as a calming agent evoking positive emotions. Agitation is a well-known side effect of dementia. There is much discussion as to the mid to long term benefits of music on reversing the agitation brought on by dementia. In a paper published in January 2010 several clinical trials are reviewed. Most studies presented seem to indicate significant short-term calming effects but limited mid-long term effects. “The researchers found that while music therapy reduced agitated behaviors, including anxiety, irritability and restlessness, these improvements were not present in the findings 1 month after the sessions, implying the effects of music therapy did not last 1 month.”

  3. Music has a neurological effect on the brain. “Dr. Maggie Haertsch, CEO of the Arts Health Institute, “the music awakens a part of the brain not impacted by dementia and evokes responses, such as singing and movement, and brief moments of re-connection with loved ones.” In another study conducted back in 1986 it was found that music evoked a response that was measurable in physiological changes such as respiratory rates and maxiofacial movement. Additional studies concluded that “increases the chance of activating neurological pathways that language alone cannot.”

  4. Active singing as opposed to passive listening provides the greatest benefit for moderate to severe dementia patients. According to a 2013 study presented at the Society for Neuroscience, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.” After analyzing groups of patients who both participated in active and non-active music sessions. “…data show that participation in an active singing program for an extended period of time can improve cognition in patients with moderate to severe dementia.”

There is much research still to be done on this topic but there is an overwhelming amount of both clinical and anecdotal evidence to suggest that music has a real benefit for people with dementia. At RecallCue we are committed to introducing new features that will take advantage of music and transform our connected Day Clock into a hub for music therapy. It will be exciting to see how others use this research to produce assistive technologies that use music as a form of therapy.


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