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Therapy-Based Intervention: Alzheimer’s and Music Therapy

March 8, 2022Neelem Sheikh

There is something universal about music that evokes emotional responses, provides meaning, stimulates reflection, and brings us together. Whether you are listening to upbeat songs to motivate yourself during a workout or a song from your wedding to reminisce, music is an incredibly powerful tool. 

Few things stimulate the brain in the way that music does. Globally, music has been demonstrated to activate regions of the brain responsible for cognitive and functional aspects of brain function, resulting in the use of music therapy for several diseases and conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. Music interventions have been widely adopted as a potential non-pharmacological therapy for neurocognitive and behavioral symptoms in Alzheimer’s disease patients.

Let’s take a closer look into how music affects the brain, Alzheimer’s and music therapy, and how to assess changes in neurocognitive function when utilizing music therapy. 

How Music Affects the Brain

Research suggests that music simultaneously stimulates many regions of the brain, including those responsible for mood, language, attention, executive function, movement, hearing, sight, sound, and touch. Music can also help produce more of the brain’s mood-enhancing chemicals,  such as dopamine and serotonin. In other words, music can affect our mood, behavior, and neurocognitive function.

The effect a song will have on an individual often depends on their past emotional experience with that particular song. Typically, music that was popular when an individual was between 18 and 25 years of age will result in the most positive response.

Alzheimer’s and Music Therapy

Research suggests that listening to music or even singing along to music can provide both emotional and behavioral benefits to Alzheimer’s disease patients. Musical memories are often preserved in those with Alzheimer’s disease, as the key brain regions linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease. Emotional and behavioral benefits of music therapy for Alzheimer’s disease patients may include the following:

Researchers believe that regardless of the music intervention approach (active music therapy versus music listening techniques), individualized music regimens provide the best outcome for patients. For this reason, music therapists will often work to create a music playlist for each patient based on their unique preferences.

In addition to providing emotional and behavioral benefits to Alzheimer’s patients, early research suggests that music therapy may affect neurocognitive function. More specifically, several studies suggest that music therapy may be effective in enhancing neurocognitive function and can be recommended as an alternative approach to managing the symptoms and behaviors associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer’s and Music Therapy: Tips for Selecting Music for Alzheimer’s Disease Patients

If you are looking to help a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease by incorporating music, here are a few helpful tips to help select music and create a positive, comforting environment.

  • If they’re able to, allow the patient to choose the music themselves. If not, think about their preferences and try to choose music that is familiar and enjoyable to the individual.
  • Encourage your loved one to tap their feet, clap their hands, or dance and sing along.
  • Avoid overstimulation. When playing music, eliminate any background noise to avoid sensory overload by turning off the television, closing any windows or doors, and setting the volume of the music to a level appropriate and comfortable for the individual’s hearing ability.
  • Use a listening platform that does not have commercials or interruptions, as this can cause confusion.
  • Pay close attention to how the individual is responding to each song and adjust the playlist accordingly.

Monitoring Brain Health Throughout Music Therapy

In addition to monitoring improvements or changes in behavior, mood, and quality of life, providers and caregivers will likely want to measure neurocognitive function over time to assess any changes or improvements resulting from music therapy for Alzheimer’s.

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