The Power of Music and Dementia

The brains of seniors are coming back to life thanks to music. A recent study shows that those suffering from moderate to severe dementia did quite well by singing show tunes from popular movies and musicals such as The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘ Oklahoma!’ in a group setting. There was also a marked improvement in their remembering skills versus those who only listened during sing-alongs but did not participate.

The study took place in a nursing home over the course of four months. Participants were enrolled in a 50 minute group session that met three times a week. Before the study, participants were given a series of tests which included a 30 question test called the Mini-Mental State Examination test and a drawing test. The participants were divided into those with moderate dementia and those with severe dementia. Half of the participants sang along while the other half were told to only listen. After four months it was seen that those who sang along showed a significant improvement in their cognitive skills compared to those that only listened.

The researchers also used brain scans of the participants as they sang or listened. Singing and speaking showed more activity in the left side of the brain and even listening to show tunes showed more activity in the right side of the brain in the listeners. These dramatic results show how simple it may be to alleviate symptoms in those suffering from dementia, a disease which has no long term cure.

Similar musical activities involving dementia and Alzheimer’s patients were done in the UK last year. The Manchester Camerata orchestra’s Music in Mind (MIM) projects involved 7,200 people in nursing homes and community projects. At one nursing home in Manchester, an activity coordinator reported seeing a mute female resident with advanced Alzheimer’s sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at top volume, knowing every lyric to the song. Other mute patients that were part of MIM projects now communicate with staff and show more confidence and increased activity levels as well as better cooperation with their caretakers.

The impact of music on dementia patients is bringing more awareness to academics. Two universities in the UK are now backing a research student in creating the world’s first “in the moment” multi sensory assessment tool to evaluate the impact of music on those suffering from dementia. Currently about 4.7 million patients suffer from a form of dementia. Those numbers are expected to triple by 2050. There continues to be more proof that music not only helps recall lyrics in those with dementia, but it also helps improve recalling past memories. The link between music and memory demonstrates music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering with dementia. The low cost and ease of access to musical therapy could be the safer, cheaper and more successful alternative to prescription drugs in easing the effects of dementia on its sufferers in the future.

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