I’m never surprised when I read promising stories about music therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Music affects some deep part of us, in a region of our brains where synapses apparently keep firing, even when they’ve shut down in other zones. It can do things that are particularly useful to people with dementia, like elevate mood, bring relaxation, suppress agitation. Mothers have known music’s special power since the beginning of time; it’s no coincidence that lullabies are sung, not spoken.
All study subjects experienced 80 four-line test lyrics in all three ways. Then, they were asked to identify familiar lyrics. Not surprisingly, the people with AD showed better recall when lyrics were sung. Healthy participants recalled spoken and sung lyrics equally – the only element of the study that surprised me a little. I’d have thought everyone would remember the words-with-songs best.
A Big Place for Music?
Will music play an increasing role in the lives of people with Alzheimer’s? We already know it can improve quality of life by reducing stress, depression, and agitation. If it can also enhance cognitive function for people with AD, why not? Examples of music’s possible benefits come quickly to mind: helping patients remember their addresses, mealtimes, the names of family members and friends, their medications.
Imagine the uplift such new confidence might bring people with AD… to say nothing of the peace of mind to family and caregivers. And these incalculable benefits result from a no-cost, non-invasive, non-pharmacological therapy – an especially attractive feature as we struggle to reduce the cost of healthcare.
With baby boomers now swelling the senior ranks, AD is poised to reach epidemic levels: an exigency acknowledged by the 2011 passage of the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA). Today, the disease affects about 5.2 million Americans. By 2030, that number will approach 8 million.
What do we stand to lose? Let the music play.