It can be difficult to see a loved one go through the mental and emotional changes that come with Alzheimer’s or dementia. These conditions can affect the parts of the brain that store memories, language, judgement, and more. Alzheimer’s shrinks a part of the brain called the cortex, as well as the hippocampus.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, the later of which can also be caused by other conditions and events, such as a stroke. But the amazing thing about the brain is that there is are two particular areas that are rarely affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s, even in advanced stages. That’s the cerebrum and parietal lobe, which are the parts of our brain that process music.
Several studies have shown that music can help “light up” the brain, not only engaging the cerebrum and parietal lobe, but stimulating neural networks to other parts of the brain. Just like a jog is good for your whole body—affecting your muscles, cardiovascular system, bone density, mood, and more— music is good for your whole mind. That’s especially good news for anyone struggling with memory disorders, and for those in their retirement facility, family, and broader community.
Music can transform people struggling with the effects of Alzheimer’s. Those who are feeling socially withdrawn because simple tasks have become too frustrating or confusing can find past memories and feelings evoked by a familiar melody from their youth. Others who are agitated from overstimulation can be calmed by soothing songs, which can even help with sleep. Music can provide a point of conversation, and even inspire exercise as listeners start moving and dancing to the rhythm. It is truly a universal language, and a deep part of what makes us human.
One neurology study was inspired by anecdotal observations, when one scientist noticed his mother-in-law had remained involved in her church choir and was leading songs even after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. That study involved brain scans that revealed how robust the parts of the brain that respond to music remained in patients, even if other parts were visibly affected by dementia. While it’s not a cure, it is a tool that can help caregivers enrich the lives of Alzheimer’s patients and create points of connection between the affected and their loved ones.
If you have a loved one with a memory disorder, try putting together a playlist of songs they love, or are memorable from their younger years. Dementia affects the ability to form new memories before it affects older memories, so this is a great opportunity to reach back into the past. What played on the jukebox in your mother’s hometown soda shop? Or what did your father love listening to in the car on his way to work? Did your loved one play an instrument or sing certain hymns at religious services? These are all great places to start.
You can load the songs onto an iPod or other MP3 player and provide your loved on with headphones, or make a mix CD, tape, or playlist on a service like Spotify, Tidal, iTunes, or Pandora. That way your loved one can listen alone or with company. Encourage singing along, dancing, or reciting the lyrics. Ask questions between songs — simple ones, especially those with a “yes” or “no” answer. You might be surprised how much your loved one knows about his or her favorite artists and what stories they have to tell about their favorite songs.
For more tips on communicating with persons suffering from Alzheimer’s or another dementia, visit alz.org/commtips. For more information about the Music & Memory program, visit https://musicandmemory.org/.