For people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, the body’s functions degenerate as the brain’s functions deteriorate. Among the most affected are the five senses, but the sense of hearing is usually the first to go. Before hearing finally shuts down, music therapy can be a valuable therapeutic tool to promote interactive communication.
According to researchers M. Brotons and S.M. Kroger of the Willamette University Psychology Department in Oregon, in their study on "The Impact of Music Therapy on Language Functioning in Dementia," patients showed statistically significant improvements in speech content and fluency after eight sessions of music therapy combined with conversations.
Other researchers have reported on proven benefits to Alzheimer’s patients derived from music therapy on aspects such as cognitive functions, social skills, and behavior (including reduced agitation and behavioral problems). Music and music therapy are not curative of Alzheimer’s and dementia, but the use of music therapy results in the beneficial effects on dementia and Alzheimner’s symptoms. These benefits lead to an enhanced quality of life for both the patient and his or her caregiver.
Why music therapy works
For centuries, music has been known to calm people down and provide relief from stress and tension. One possible explanation for its effects is found in a study by researchers at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine in Florida, led by Dr. Ardash Kumar.
The study assessed how music therapy affected secretion levels of five brain chemicals (melatonin, serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and prolactin) in Alzheimer’s patients.
After a month-long program (30 minutes a day, five days a week), the team found that music therapy led to increased secretion levels of melatonin, a hormone associated with mood regulation, lower aggression, reduced depression and enhanced sleep. The higher melatonin levels persisted even six weeks after music therapy sessions had stopped. Secretions of epinephrine and norepinephrine rose immediately after music therapy sessions but did not remain for long after the sessions had ceased. Music therapy did not influence secretions of serotonin and prolactin.
How to make music therapy work
The Alzheimer’s Association recognizes the enriching benefits of music therapy. Music can stir long-term memories; and, best results may be obtained from music popular during the patient’s youth. Some patients might respond well to rhythm-and-blues, or to instrumental hymns and spiritual songs. For the current crop of the over 80s, music from Glenn Miller and Lawrence Welk might be invaluable.
Singing along, or swaying or clapping hands with the music should be encouraged. Music therapy may awaken a desire to dance, which can be therapeutic. A patient’s enjoyment is typically increased as they move or sing with the music. Music therapy can also be linked to other memory-stirring activities such as looking at photographs.