Music therapy for Alzheimer's disease

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Music therapy is a type of intervention that involves music in some capacity and includes both a participant and a therapist who has completed an accredited music therapy program.[1][2] The forms of music therapy are broad in nature, and can range from individual or group singing sessions, to active participation in music making, to listening to songs individually.[1][3] Within those populations living with Alzheimer's, music therapy is at times used to assist in alleviating the behavioral and psychological symptoms of this disease.[1][2][3][4][5] Music therapy is based in scientific findings and can elicit change in individuals as well as groups through music.[6] Personalized music therapy has been shown in some cases to be able to lessen certain symptoms, including behavioral symptoms and those related to dementia.[2][7] Music therapy, in comparison to pharmacological treatments, is a very low-cost solution to help manage aspects of the disease throughout the progression of the disease.

Recent research[edit]

Music therapy has been studied in the psychological community and has been found to be effective in reducing behavioral symptoms as well as positively influencing emotional and cognitive well-being. In one study, Alzheimer's patients in 98 nursing homes were exposed to music therapy and the effects of music therapy were compared to 98 controls not exposed to music therapy. The results suggest that this program helped reduce medicine use, in combination with the reduction of and behavioral and physiological symptoms of dementia.[8] This is the first empirical study to show that the Music and Memory program, described below, has effectiveness in reducing antipsychotic and anxiolytic medicine use behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Additionally, another study found that music therapy was found to have sedative and relaxing effects on patients. Certain neurotransmitter levels, such as norepinephrine and epinephrine, had significantly higher levels after four weeks after music therapy.[5] Music therapy has also been found to help slow down language deterioration.[3]

Similarly, a study was conducted that had Alzheimer's patients in nursing home facilities assigned to one of three activities: play puzzles, paint, or listen to music from the patients' youth. When tested six months later, those who listened to music were more alert and in better moods and had greater recall of their own personal events when compared to the groups who painted or played with puzzles.[7]

Research has even suggested that Alzheimer's patients may be capable of learning entirely new music. Alzheimer's patients were taught an original song by a group leader and over the course of three sessions, there was visible improvements and increased alertness among Alzheimer's patients. Learning new songs was possible.[9] Additionally, another study found similar results and found that Alzheimer's patients when prompted could remember new songs and tunes that were taught to them. They found that with regular practice, Alzheimer's patients could in fact learn new music.[10]

Additionally, a qualitative study summarized 21 studies conducted since 1985 on those with Alzheimer's disease and the effect of music therapy. These studies varied in nature, but the authors concluded that music therapy can be a successful intervention and can improve both cognitive and emotional behaviors, as well as decrease some of the behavioral issues associated with Alzheimer's Disease.[2] While the methods were varied in nature, the converging evidence in the various experiments lend optimism for the validity of music therapy in this subset of the population.

Constraints with research[edit]

However, some of the current research does not support the fact that all musical memory is preserved in patients with Alzheimer's disease. A paper reviewing eight case studies and three group studies, found that certain kinds of musical memory such as remembering familiar music from one's youth might not be preserved. However, of the Alzheimer's patients that were musicians, more musical memory was preserved than in those without prior musical experience. This research suggests that music therapy may not be effective in the same capacity for every Alzheimer's patients, and that differences may be highly variable in nature. It is important to remember that individuals react differently to any treatment, and results vary [11] This study also highlights that there are huge methodological differences in the different kinds of studies, providing difficulty for synthesizing across information and study designs. This research highlights an important understanding with these studies, since most of them lack a control group so drawing causal conclusions becomes impossible.

Music & Memory program[edit]

Music programs in general have been newly investigated as a more formal and structured way to alleviate cognitive impairments associated with Alzheimer's disease and other related dementias. Providing 5 sessions of music-based therapy has been found to improve generally the behaviour problems, reduce anexity, and enhance the emotional well-being but in contrast no clear evidence about Music's effect on aggression or agitation.[12] The most widely used being the MUSIC & MEMORY® Program.[13] The MUSIC & MEMORY® program and its efficacy has been studied by psychologists and noted positively in several formal studies, including a 2018 study by the University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City.[14] The MUSIC & MEMORY® Program developed by Dan Cohen, MSW, in 2006 is helping to increase awareness and efficacy of music therapy in relation to Alzheimer's and other related dementias.[15] Music & Memory trains nursing home staff and other elder care professionals, as well as family caregivers, how to create and provide personalized playlists using iPods/mp3 players and related digital audio systems that enable those struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive and physical challenges to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories. By providing access and education, and by creating a network of MUSIC & MEMORY® Certified organizations, they aim to make this form of personalized therapeutic music a standard of care throughout the health care industry.[16][15] As of 2018, Music & Memory has certified over 5000 organizations in the United States, including state-sponsored projects in California, Texas, Ohio, and Wisconsin.[17]

Power of music[edit]

Music influences many regions of the brain including those associated with emotional and creative areas has the power to evoke emotion and memories from deep in the past, so it is understandable that Alzheimer's patients can recall musical memories from many decades prior given the richness and vividness of these memories.[18] Music memory can be preserved for those living with Alzheimer's disease and brought forth through various techniques of music therapy.[11] Areas of the brain influenced by music are one of the final parts of the brain to degenerate in the progression of Alzheimer's Disease.[19]

Alzheimer's patients can often remember songs from their youth even when far along in the progression of their disease. Dementia facilities the use music as a means of entertainment, since it often brings joy and elicits memories.[4] Alive Inside describes that music activates more parts of the brain than any other stimulus and records itself in our motions and emotions.[20] The movie describes that these are the last parts of the brain touched by Alzheimer's.[20]

Music therapists have the capability to develop relationships and bonds with their patients, especially through repeated sessions. Music can help with an adjustment toward unfamiliar environments as well as settings that trigger memories from deep in the past.[1] These sessions can often lead to uncontrollable emotions, as evidenced in the patients Dan Cohen describes and highlights in nursing homes in Alive Inside. One patient documented in Alive Inside had used a walker for many years, and while listening to a song from her youth was able to dance without the use of her walker.[20]

Popular Media[edit]

Alzheimer's Disease has been discussed in popular media outlets. The 2014 film Alive Inside follows patients suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and demonstrates how music can be used as a means for music therapy to alleviate some suffering and pain. This film highlights the impact that music can have on those who can not communicate in traditional ways, and the power that music can play, particularly that from one's youth. Alive Inside won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentaries, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. In response to the film, the Alive Inside Foundation, founded in 2010, rose in popularity. The foundation's motto is the "Empathy Revolution" and aims to connect youth and older adults suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, specifically through music.[15] The goal of the foundation is to administer music via the form of iPods to every nursing home across the United States.

Additionally, The Alzheimer's Association gives a list of caregivers tips for people with Alzheimers relatives and friends. They state that music therapy has been found to enhance cognition and can help caregivers better take care of those affected by Alzheimers.[4]


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  14. ^ "Current Research".
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  16. ^ "Our Mission and Vision".
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  19. ^ "Why Do the Songs from Your Past Evoke Such Vivid Memories?". Psychology Today. Retrieved February 26, 2018.
  20. ^ a b c "nDex". Alive Inside. Retrieved February 26, 2018.