Music therapy and dementia

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Monica Logan | 14/12/2020

How music therapy can improve the physical and mental wellbeing of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia

Evidence shows that music therapy can improve the physical and mental wellbeing of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia

Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is a neurological condition characterized by deterioration in cognitive, behavioural, social, and emotional functions. Neurological disorders are diseases of the brain, spinal cord, cranial nerves, peripheral nerves, nerve roots, autonomic nervous system, neuromuscular junction, and muscles. 

Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia and is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. It eventually effects the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with the late-onset type of the disease, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. A person who has dementia may also have aphasia – an impairment of language that affects the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. This can severely affect their ability to communicate. Being unable to communicate their basic needs and understood by others can become a problem for patients and lead to a feeling of social isolation and a loss of relationships.

Several studies have shown that music therapy can help improve cognitive function in people living with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Music also has a positive long-term effect on depression symptoms associated with dementia.

Evidence shows that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioural benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

This is because the areas of the brain linked to musical memory may be relatively undamaged by Alzheimer’s and dementia, meaning that musical memory can be preserved.

Listening to music has a positive effect on cognitive function, as it requires many areas of the brain to be activated to integrate and respond to perceptions of sounds, rhythms, and lyrics.

Music therapy can improve the overall physical and mental wellbeing of dementia patients including:

  • Memory recall
  • Positive changes in moods and emotional states
  • Providing an alternative method to medicines for managing pain and discomfort
  • Providing a structure that promotes rhythmic or continuous movement or vocal fluency in physical rehabilitation
  • Providing opportunities for social interaction and communication

For people with Alzheimer’s, music therapy can help reduce agitation, stress, anxiety and depression. People with Alzheimer’s disease may become agitated – restless or worried. Agitation may cause pacing (walking around), sleeplessness or aggression (where the person lashes out verbally or physically).

Studies have shown that structured music therapy sessions and listening to recorded music can have a calming effect on people with Alzheimer’s and help decrease agitation levels at meal times and bath times, and reduce wandering and sleep disturbances.

The use of music improvisation during a music therapy session can also be a helpful way for people with Alzheimer’s to communicate through musical play, for example:

  • Mirroring – when the client does exactly what the music therapist is doing musically, expressively and through body language, and
  • Matching – when the client matches the style and quality of what the music therapist is doing.

For people with parents or loved ones who have Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can be very difficult to communicate with each other. Music therapy can also benefit caregivers, giving them a way to connect with loved ones who have Alzheimer’s disease and have difficulty communicating.