Can Music Therapy Help People With Dementia?

Rather than a disease, dementia is a set of symptoms that interferes with cognitive abilities such as memory, language, judgment, communication, and thinking. Dementia is common in older individuals (though it can occur in young adults and children due to rare conditions), and usually starts with memory loss before gradually becoming severe enough to interfere with daily living. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, with more than five million Americans suffering from it. There is no cure for dementia, but symptoms and quality of life can be improved. In particular, non-drug treatments (such as psychotherapy, aromatherapy, light therapy, and music therapy) are preferred since they are safe, non-invasive, and effective in treating behavioral problems.1

1. Music Stimulates Multiple Parts Of The Brain And Evokes Emotions

Music is one of the most powerful elicitors of emotions2 and can consistently evoke a response, even in dementia patients.3 Many caregivers for dementia patients use music simply as a recreational tool, but it has so many other benefits in stimulating multiple parts of the brain.

id="melodies-and-memories">2. The Brain Connects Music With Long-Term Memory

Music makes a patient emotive, and with emotion comes memory.4 You’ve probably experienced an extreme form of nostalgia around a certain song that, when heard, will immediately trigger vivid memories. This is because our brain connects music with long-term memory. Even in severe dementia patients, the hippocampus – the part of the brain that retains long-term memory – is intact, and it can be activated by music, even when language fails. So, it is not uncommon to see a person with no memory of their name singing favorite songs from childhood.5 Music therapy can also boost brain activity and help maintain cognitive skills and memory in general.

id="getting-your-groove-on">3. Music Improves Balance And Equilibrium

Actively playing music triggers another part of the brain, the cerebellum, which controls balance and equilibrium. Simply put, music makes dementia patients move: dancing and playing instruments is not only fun, it can also help improve motor skills.6

4. Music Releases “Happy Hormones” And Promotes Socialization

Listening to music and singing are known to increase the secretion of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins – often called the happy hormones.7 They can also bring people together: Things like singing, dancing, and actively being involved in a music session encourage socialization and give patients direction and an overall sense of purpose. This can also help curb any negative behavior or aggression.8

5. Music Acts As A Natural Pain Reliever

Music therapy is also a non-pharmacological form of pain management. With the help of music, patients feel pain less sharply and tend to relax as they breathe more rhythmically. This creates relief from pain and an overall sense of well-being.9

6. Music Therapy Is Designed Keeping In Mind The Types Of Dementia

1. Alzheimer’s Disease

There are many studies proving how music therapy can be life-changing for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. There are even anecdotal cases of patients who find their speech after years of silence with the help of music therapy. Listening to familiar songs can help recall memories and improve communication. Music can also encourage physical activity and curtail behavioral problems.10

id="parkinson's-disease">2. Parkinson’s Disease

In Parkinson’s disease, patients mainly suffer from slurry speech and poor muscular coordination. Research shows that music stimulates the production of two important neurotransmitters – dopamine and serotonin – that help with balance and movement. These are usually low in Parkinson’s patients. Slow, rhythmic music improves muscular control, speech, and relaxation.11

3. Other Conditions

One study suggests that music augments verbal memory in vascular dementia patients.12 Those suffering from Lewy body dementia also find music therapy useful in making past connections.13 Unfortunately, music therapy doesn’t work well with frontotemporal dementia patients; the two frontal lobes of the brain that control behavior and emotion are affected, which means these patients lose the ability to connect with music.14

7. There Are Two Types Of Music Therapy: Active And Receptive

There are two ways in which music therapy works: active and receptive. In active music therapy, the patient and the therapist indulge in lively sessions of dancing, singing, and playing instruments. In receptive therapy, the therapist sings or plays music while the patient simply listens. Sometimes, the therapist identifies familiar music and creates a playlist for the patient. While these songs might give them a chance to reconnect with the past, any type of soothing sounds can help with focus and relaxation. Professional music therapy is the ideal way to go, but caretakers or immediate family members can also provide support.15 If you have a loved one with dementia, here are some ways to incorporate music into their lives:

  • Select music that the patient enjoys.
  • Choose music for the mood. For example, choose soft music for bedtime, or an upbeat song to invoke a memory of good times.
  • Encourage clapping and moving.
  • Let the patient play simple instruments like a tambourine.
  • Sing along, hum, and join the fun.
  • Stop the music if it brings negative emotions or distress.
  • Playing the music at an optimal volume to avoid overstimulation.
  • Avoid commercials or outdoor noise to keep the session distraction-free.

Music therapy is not necessarily a cure for dementia, but studies show that it is an indispensable tool in providing comfort and improving the quality of life in patients.16 Even a single session of music therapy shows a substantial difference in some patients.17 So, go ahead, and press play – and don’t shy away from singing and dancing along!