Dementia affects more than just memory. The loss of cognitive functioning can make the world seem increasingly unfamiliar and frightening. People with dementia commonly struggle with anxiety and depression as the disease progresses.
According to an upcoming study in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, music may ease this anxiety. The study found music may activate areas of the brain unaffected by dementia. Music may offer a soothing and familiar feeling to people experiencing dementia.
How Music Affects the Brains of People With Dementia
The salience network in the brain helps attach emotional meaning to experiences. The salience network is behind the chills a person gets listening to dramatic songs. Researchers assessed how music affects the salience network within people who have dementia.
The study included 17 people with dementia and their caregivers. Researchers spent three weeks helping recruits select personally meaningful songs. They taught caregivers how to play the songs on a portable music player.
Recruits listened to a string of 20-second clips through headphones. Eight clips played music from the recruit’s collection. Eight clips played said music in reverse. Another eight clips were 20-second blocks of silence.
As recruits listened to the clips, researchers observed their brains through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). FMRI measures oxygen and blood flow to the brain while the mind is working.
Participants showed more brain activity when listening to music compared to silence. Blood flow increased to the salience network in the brain. It also increased blood flow between regions controlling visual memory and language functions.
Increased blood flow between brain networks suggests the regions were communicating. Activating these regions may improve mood and reducing dementia symptoms. Music may even help delay cognitive decline.
Although the results are promising, they are not conclusive. The researchers caution that the sample size was small. Plus, the study only held a single fMRI study for each person. It is uncertain whether music’s effects persist or if there is only a short-term boost in brain activity.
If future research supports the study’s findings, then music could be an affordable way to improve the lives of people with dementia.
Tips for Using Music to Help People With Dementia
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, music can ease the distress caused by Alzheimer’s (the most common type of dementia). Music can help people engage with their environment, even after severe cognitive decline.
When using music to help people with dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends the following strategies:
- Choose music that is familiar to the person, or that they once enjoyed. If the person is able, allow them to select their own music.
- Avoid sensory overload and confusion. Commercials interrupting music can cause stress. So too can ambient noise. Turn off other electronics and close the windows. Make sure the music isn’t too loud.
- Use music to set the mood. A calming piece of music may help someone with anxiety. An energetic piece can enliven the spirits of a person who feels depressed.
- Encourage the person to actively take part in the music by dancing, clapping, or drumming.
People who are affected by dementia, whether directly or indirectly, may wish to get help from a therapist.
- Music activates regions of the brain spared by Alzheimer’s disease. (2018, April 28). ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180428145111.htm
- Music, art and Alzheimer’s. (n.d.). Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-music-art-therapy.asp
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