Exploring the impact of music on dementia

Exploring the impact of music on dementia

The Profound Power of Music in Dementia Care

Music for Dementia Design by Andrew Nguyen

Music has a remarkable ability to touch our souls, invoke deep emotions, and transport us to different times and places. It can bring joy, calmness, and a sense of connection. But for individuals living with dementia, music holds even greater significance. It has the power to unlock memories, improve mood, and even aid in cognitive function. In this article, we will explore the profound impact of music on individuals with dementia and delve into the science behind this phenomenon.

The Mystery of Music’s Effect on the Brain

Imagine watching a video where an individual with severe dementia unexpectedly begins to sway to a familiar tune or plays a beloved song on a musical instrument despite not recognizing their own family members. It’s a puzzling phenomenon that speaks to the complex nature of this neurological disorder. How can someone forget their loved ones’ names but remember intricate melodies or lyrics from their favorite songs?

To shed light on this mystery, we turn to Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, an assistant professor in music psychology at Durham University, and Beatie Wolfe, a singer, songwriter, and ambassador for the charity Music for Dementia. In a captivating podcast episode titled “In Conversation: Investigating the Power of Music for Dementia,” they delve into the fascinating world of music and its impact on those living with dementia.

The Healing Potential of Music

Research has consistently highlighted the myriad benefits of music on individual well-being. Not only can music induce relaxation and aid in stress reduction, but it can also alleviate pain and anxiety, particularly in hospital settings. Furthermore, music has been found to have a positive impact on cognitive health, potentially slowing down cognitive decline.

Engaging in musical activities, whether through active participation or active listening, has been shown to increase the brain’s gray matter and neuroplasticity. This rewiring ability is crucial for learning and memory formation, making music a powerful tool in treating the symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss and cognitive difficulties.

Music: A Connector and Medicinal Force

Loneliness and social isolation can accelerate the progression of dementia. Music, however, has the unique ability to connect individuals and combat these feelings of isolation. According to Beatie Wolfe, music is the most powerful instant connector in the world, surpassing other art forms in its ability to create a deep and immediate bond. Music’s pervasiveness enables individuals to absorb its frequencies and words, providing an immersive experience that goes beyond mere entertainment.

Beatie believes that music, and the arts in general, possess medicinal qualities, acting as a powerful resource for emotional well-being. Whether people are passively absorbing the sounds or actively engaging with the music, it has the potential to elicit profound emotional responses.

The Profound Effects of Silence

Contrary to popular belief, silence can also have a therapeutic effect on the mind and body. Studies have shown that silence induces relaxation, reducing brain wave frequency and lowering blood pressure. On the other hand, excessive noise and loud sounds, such as heavy traffic, have been linked to cognitive health issues and may act as specific risk factors for dementia.

Beatie shared her transformative experience in the Bell Labs anechoic chamber, the world’s quietest room, where she recorded her album “Raw Space.” The absolute silence provided a sensory reset, calming her nervous system and allowing her to experience sound in its purest form. In our increasingly noisy and distracting world, silence holds immense potential for reconnection with oneself and mental tranquility.

Unraveling the Memory-Music Connection

The ability of individuals with dementia to recall song lyrics while struggling to remember names is a fascinating aspect of the interaction between music and memory. Dr. Guite highlights the role of repetition, while Dr. Jakubowski delves into the concept of procedural memory. Procedural memory refers to remembering motor sequences, such as playing an instrument or singing along to a familiar tune. This type of memory appears to be spared even in the later stages of dementia, allowing individuals to play familiar pieces on instruments or sing along to well-known songs.

The Transformative Power of Music in Care Homes

Beatie Wolfe initiated a research project called “The Power of Music” in care homes run by the Priory Group in the UK. This project aimed to test the hypothesis that music, regardless of prior familiarity, can have a powerful influence on individuals with dementia. The project’s results were awe-inspiring, with the residents tapping their feet, clapping their hands, and singing along to the music, their eyes shining with joy.

Among the original songs played during the project, one song, “Wish,” had an extraordinary impact on the audience. Dr. Jakubowski attributes its success to factors such as short phrases, predictability, repetition, clear beat, and an easily recognizable structure. These elements create a scaffold for participation, making it easier for individuals to join in and experience the transformative effects of music.

The Memories Music Unearths

Dr. Jakubowski’s research on music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) provides further insight into the connection between music and memory recall. MEAMs show that when music activates a memory, it can also trigger related memories, thus facilitating a broader recollection of past experiences. Music tends to evoke more positive memories compared to other cues, such as smells or objects. This phenomenon can be particularly potent in older adults.

Recalling fragments of their past through music helps individuals with dementia reestablish their sense of identity and personhood. Reconnecting with positive memories enhances mental well-being and reminds both individuals and their caregivers of the vibrant lives they have lived.

The Lasting Impact of Music

While the immediate effects of music are evident, sustained exposure to music is crucial for long-lasting benefits. Simply hearing a song years after an initial encounter may not produce a lasting impact. However, engaging with music in various ways, from actively playing instruments to listening to recorded music regularly, has been shown to reduce agitation, apathy, and improve mood and identity for individuals with dementia.

The Cautionary Side of Music Therapy

While music therapy has immense potential, it is essential to tread carefully. Music can potentially trigger traumatic memories or negative emotions associated with certain events. Selecting the right music for individuals with dementia is crucial, taking into account their preferences, likes, and dislikes. Music therapists must be mindful of not subjecting individuals to music that may evoke negative reactions or discomfort.

The Enduring Power of Music

The power of music to improve the lives of individuals with dementia is a subject of ongoing research. While its ability to delay the progression of the disease remains a topic for further study, the transformative effects of music on mood, memory, and well-being cannot be denied.

As we reflect on the profound impact music has on our lives, we invite you to think about that one song that never fails to evoke emotions within you. Whether it brings back memories of the happiest day or reminds you of a heartbreak, music holds the unparalleled power to touch our souls and bring us back to moments we cherish.