Nothing lights up Ruby’s ninety-one-year-old face more than the sound of music. For this wheelchair-bound Alzheimer’s patient, gospel music is the trigger, and the staff at the nursing home knows that Ruby is happiest and the most calm whenever she is listening to or singing along with her treasured gospel tunes.
Music Therapy and Alzheimer’s Disease
Research into the ability of music to improve the mood, behavior, and quality of life of Alzheimer’s patients is turning up impressive results. In a study conducted by the University of Miami and published in Alternative Therapy Health Medicine (November 1999), people with Alzheimer’s disease participated in a month-long program of music therapy (30 to 40 minutes of music five days a week).
Both after the month-long trial and at six weeks follow-up, the patients showed a significant increase in levels of the hormone melatonin, which is known to reduce stress and promote calm. Indeed, the patients’ behavior and sleeping difficulties improved during the study and up to six weeks after it was over.
A study reported in the Journal of Music Therapy (“The effect of background stimulative music on behavior in Alzheimer’s patients,” Winter 2007) had similar findings. The investigators found that patients who were exposed to background music significantly improved their social behaviors and reduced their negative, antisocial behaviors whenever music was playing in the background.
The Power of Music
What special power does music hold for Alzheimer’s patients? Music stimulates the most primitive part of the brain—the brain stem—while language is processed in the back of the left temporal lobe. People who have difficulty processing language, as many people with Alzheimer’s do, can still appreciate music at a basic level.
Therefore, even people who have severe dementia can respond to music. People with Alzheimer’s who rarely speak will often sing along to songs they know from their past.
How to Use Music for Alzheimer’s Patients
If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s and communication has become difficult or seemingly impossible, music may be a way to connect. Gayatri Devi, MD, director of The New York Memory Services and author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You about Alzheimer’s Disease, offers these suggestions on how to bring music into the life of someone who has Alzheimer’s and how it may improve quality of life and your relationship with the individual.
- Choose music the person enjoyed in the past—specific singers, bands, or simply a category of music such as jazz or classical. If you don’t know the person’s music tastes, start with music that was popular when the person was in his or her teens or twenties.
- Choose a source of continuous music rather than a source that is interrupted by commercials. A CD/DVD player that allows you to load several disks can provide this for you.
- Play background music whenever the person seems to be anxious or during activities that may be stressful, such as bathing, dressing, or eating.
- If possible, encourage the patient to participate with the music by singing, clapping, or even dancing.
- Eliminate other sounds that may compete with the music. Turn off the television and block outside disruptive sounds if possible.
The American Music Therapy Association offers details about music therapy and its value in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions.