All of us have heard the clichés. Music is the medicine of the mind, the language of the soul, and the essence of life. Our belief in these platitudes has lifted them to the status of universal truths. Yet only a few ask this critical question for fear of being called silly: can music help someone with Alzheimer’s?
Research has shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease can get emotional and behavioral benefits by listening to music or singing songs. One study has been able to establish that music does treat the memory deficit problem in patients with Alzheimer’s.
That’s not all. Music can help Alzheimer’s patients in other ways too. And regardless of whether the disease is still at an early or an advanced stage. Read to know what those benefits are and how you could use music to help a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
How Can Music Help Someone With Alzheimer’s?
Music can help someone with Alzheimer’s by “outfoxing” the pathophysiology of the disease, in the words of famous neurologist Oliver Sacks. That means it helps the patients by using those brain pathways that the AD is yet to damage. Here’s what this point means.
In the brain of a healthy individual, music activates six pathways:
- Auditory Pathway – responsible for recognizing acoustic features of music such as loudness, duration, and frequency
- Musical-Syntactic Network – responsible for identifying higher orders of music such as rhythm, interval, and harmony
- Attention and Working Memory Network – responsible for keeping our brain’s focus on music and retaining the music in our memory bank
- Motor Network – responsible for allowing our organs to play, sing and move to the tunes of the music
- Reward and Emotion Network – responsible for evoking reward, pleasure, and other music-related emotions
- Episodic Memory Network – responsible for helping us recognize music and bring back associated memories
It is the episodic memory network that Alzheimer’s targets in patients. Music, on the other hand, activates the same network. It does that by triggering the emotions associated with that music. This, in turn, brings back the memories that are usually attached to those emotions.
This chain reaction – listening to music >> triggering of emotions >> recalling associated memories – is how music can help someone with Alzheimer’s. The reason why we’re so sure of this hypothesis is that research has established its veracity. Here’s how music can help someone with Alzheimer’s.
Music helps elicit autobiographical memory
Autobiographical memory is related to emotions and memories associated with a past event in our lives (e.g., hearing the music that played at your graduation). Various studies have been able to connect the dots between listening to music and an improvement in autobiographical memory.
Take, for instance, the 2011 study carried out by El Haj and colleagues. It established that patients with mild AD were able to recall more autobiographical details when they listened to music than those who listened to no music at all.
The study was able to draw two more equally essential conclusions. First, patients were more likely to recall their autobiographical details when they listened to self-selected music. Second, they were more likely to remember positive words than negative words after listening to their favorite songs.
That is to say that when Alzheimer’s patients listen to music, they’re more likely to recall positive memories from their past. That’s a massive finding once you consider the uplifting effect positive memories can have on our mood and daily lives.
Music helps relieve stress
Most of us already know that listening to upbeat music has a positive effect on our mood and brings down our stress levels. We are also aware of the connection between stress and depression. What we don’t know, however, is how stress-induced depression can cause Alzheimer’s.
Fortunately for our understanding, researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health have connected the dots between stress, depression and Alzheimer. They evaluated the medical histories of more than 1,300 individuals and had them go through cognitive tests.
Researchers found that for every stressful event, the brain of the study’s participants aged by 1.5 years, excluding African Americans whose brain aged by 4 years. The results are hugely concerning because aging is one of the biggest risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet another way stress can contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is depression, which experts believe is another risk factor for Alzheimer’s and similar forms of the illness. Music, therefore, keeps stress at bay to minimize the likelihood of Alzheimer’s in later life.
Music helps reduce anxiety
One study has been able to unearth a link between consistently high anxiety levels and an elevated risk of Alzheimer’s in the elderly. The five-year study, carried out by researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, followed 250+ adults with the ages between 62 and 90.
Each of the subjects was cognitively normal at the start of the study. All underwent a positron emission tomography, or PET, scan to identify the levels of beta-amyloid in their brains. Beta-amyloid is a protein that blocks signals sent to the brain and its higher levels point to an elevated risk of Alzheimer’s.
Throughout the next half-decade, each of the subjects underwent tests that recorded their anxiety levels. Researchers found that those who showed more symptoms of anxiety had higher amounts of beta-amyloid in their brains, which means that you shouldn’t take your anxiety lightly.
That’s precisely what you can do by listening to soothing music every day. Multiple studies have proven beyond doubt that music does reduce anxiety, mainly by reducing the production of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline), that our body releases when we’re feeling anxious.
Music helps reduce agitation
People with Alzheimer’s may become aggressive or agitated as their disease gets worse. They might get restless or worried for no visible reason at all. No matter how hard their loved ones or caregivers may try, they may not seem to be able to get calm.
Music can calm such individuals, especially passive music which researchers have found elicits repressed feelings that helps calm an agitated individual. Music that meets the preference of the patient also has a beneficial effect on agitation in Alzheimer’s. Here’s why.
Researchers have argued that familiar music, which the patient listened to before they contracted the disease, might bring back positive emotional memories. It might also remind them of the time before the disease’s outbreak and help them look ahead towards a time when they’d be out of the hospital.
How to Use Music to Help Someone with Alzheimer’s?
Here’s how you can use the power of music to help someone with Alzheimer’s:
- Think about their preferences: Research has been able to draw a connection between music selected based on the patient’s preferences and a decrease in their state of agitation. You’d thus do well to choose your loved one’s favorite tracks.
- Play soothing music: Especially when your loved one is behaving aggressively. Soothing music might help calm them down for their own good. However, when they’re feeling gloomy, play face-paced tracks to lift their spirits.
- Prevent overstimulation: Make sure there are no competing noises when you’re playing music. Shut the door. Draw the curtains. Turn off the TV. Set the music’s volume based on the hearing ability of your loved one.
- Encourage movement: Try to convince your loved one to clap to their favorite beats. Encourage them to tap their feet with the tunes. If it’s possible for you, consider joining them in the dance.
- Sing along: There’s nothing that would boost your loved one’s mood as much as you sing along with them. This will also enhance your relationship with them, giving you two benefits when all you asked for was only their well-being.
- Pay attention to their expressions: Are they enjoying the music? Perhaps it’s time to turn up the volume. Is their response negative? Then you might want to stop the music and try a different track that would lift their mood.
What are the Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease?
Here are the most common risk factors for Alzheimer’s:
- Age – Research has found the risk of Alzheimer’s goes up as we get older. For most people, the threat of Alzheimer’s starts increasing after 65. After age 65, the risk goes up 2x every five years until the age of 85, after which every one in three persons is at the risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Family – Family history is one of the major risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Those who have a sister, brother or a parent with the disease are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Either genetics or environmental factors (or both) might play their part in the development of the risk.
- Head Injury – There is a strong connection between head injury and the future risk of Alzheimer’s. That’s why you might want to properly wear a seat belt every time you’re in your car. Tie the helmet carefully when taking part in contact sports and try to “fall-proof” your home.
- Heart diseases – Many conditions that might harm the heart may also contribute to vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s. They include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. Make sure you’re moving enough daily and take a balanced diet to prevent the onset of these conditions.
- Down Syndrome – People with Down Syndrome disorder face the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in their 30s and 40s. The exact reason is not apparent, but many cases show people with this disorder getting the disease almost two to three decades than other people.
What Are The Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Here are the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s:
Growing Memory Troubles
People with this disease:
- Repeat questions and statements again and again
- Forget events, appointments or conversations regularly
- Misplace possessions and other valuables on a regular basis
- Find it difficult to express their thoughts or identify objects by right words
- Can’t easily locate items they have themselves placed
Fixed Daily Troubles
People with Alzheimer’s:
- Find it difficult to make plans and follow them
- Have trouble following a recipe they have applied many times before
- Cannot muster enough concentration to focus on detailed tasks
- Have difficulty driving to locations they go to regularly
- Regularly take the wrong turn on routes they travel on daily
People with the disease:
- Find it difficult to read small words on the page
- Cannot tell two similar (yet different) colors apart
- Have trouble determining the correct distance when driving
- Complain that their peripheral vision isn’t as good as that of others
- May not be able to correctly name objects they see
Engage in Social Withdrawal
People with Alzheimer’s:
- Become less involved with their favorite tasks
- Lack the motivation to be a part of group activities
- Sleep and watch television more than normal people
- Deliberately try to scale backs on the projects at the office
- Get hyperactive when they’re involved in group settings
Frequent mood changes
People with the disease:
- Get offended too easily or too often
- Feel anxious, scared, or depressed
- Prone to mood swings and agitations
- Are highly suspicious of other people, even friends
- Are completely happy one minute and fly into a rage the next
Research has proven beyond doubt that music can really help someone with Alzheimer’s. Listening to their favorite tracks might help them recall memories related to the music. It might also relieve stress, reduce their anxiety levels and reduce agitation.
However, not all types of music might have these effects. Only those that meet the preferences of your loved one with Alzheimer’s might provide them with the benefits mentioned above. You’d thus do well to make your loved one’s preferences in mind while playing tracks for them.
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