December 12, 2012

Music Therapy for Alzheimer's

Decades ago, before I had started doing any research about the brain, I knew there was some special connection between music and memory. My friends and I remembered music lyrics long after we’d forgotten other information from the same era. As he slipped further into dementia, a beloved neighbor could still sing after he’d lost the ability to speak.

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.

On her Brain Blogger site on December 7, writer Amy Wong described a small study that yielded interesting, if not surprising, results. Twelve people with AD, and 17 healthy people as a control group, were shown simple song lyrics on a computer screen. In some cases, viewers saw the words and also heard them being sung. In other cases, the lyrics were shown and spoken (by the same person who sang them). A third scenario had the lyrics appearing silently on the screen.

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.

Alzheimer's Foundation of America: Music Therapy and Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's Association: Music, Art, and Alzheimer's
ABC News: Music Brings AD Patients "Back to Life"

1 comment:

kaitlyn roland said...

Yes! I think this is wonderful... thanks for sharing!
The Music & Memory iPod Project (Alive Inside Documentary) is so powerful!!