Dear doctors: My uncle has Alzheimer’s disease. He goes through these horrible phases where he is restless and frightened. We noticed that the music calmed him down, especially when it was something from when he was young. Why would that be?
Responnse: You had the chance to discover a therapeutic practice that dates back at least to ancient Greece. Aristotle and Plato believed that music could soothe the troubled soul, and physicians in their day used musical instruments to induce sleep and relieve mental disorders.
Today, there is a solid body of research on the therapeutic uses of music for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Due to the unique way in which this type of dementia evolves, the areas of the brain related to musical memory remain mostly free from damage. This allows Alzheimer’s patients to recognize and respond to music. This has been found to be helpful in managing periodic episodes of distress and agitation.
When researchers in Canada played new music for a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, she did not respond. But when they played melodies that she knew well, she sang at the same time. She remembered all the words and continued to sing the songs accurately even after the recordings ended.
Other researchers who have studied people with mild cognitive impairment or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease have linked listening to music that was personally significant and improved neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to s ‘adapt in response to new experiences. Writing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the researchers said this was especially true when the person felt a deep connection to the music being played.
Music is indeed integrated into the therapy of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. It has been used to engage the patient in the present moment and in the hope that it may have a beneficial effect on the progression of the disease.
When connecting with your uncle through music, first eliminate any competing sounds, such as TV or radio, which can be confusing. Choose music that he knows and loves and that evokes happy memories. Singing, clapping or even dancing can enrich the experience for both of you.
If your uncle’s mood changes, be ready to change songs or end the session. And be careful to avoid overstimulation. Keep it fun, easy, and manageable.
As emerging research suggests, music may be a beneficial therapeutic pathway for cognition.
Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists at UCLA Health.