Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Does Music Help Dementia Patients?

Do you have a family member who suffers from dementia, including Alzheimer's Disease? Do you worry about developing dementia yourself? If so, you may be looking for ways to postpone the disease as long as possible and make life better for those who are already showing signs of dementia.  One of the questions which frequently comes up is whether or not music can make a difference.  The answer is that music does help dementia patients, though not in as many ways as you may hope.

Learning to Play an Instrument May Postpone Dementia

Researchers have discovered that learning something new is one way to exercise your brain and, in some cases, seems to postpone the development of dementia.  This can be true whether you are learning a new language, playing brain games on sites like Luminosity, or learning to play an instrument.  The greatest benefit to your brain comes when you are learning something completely new.  When you simply practice doing things you already know how to do, it may be pleasant and relaxing for you, but it is not helping your brain make new connections.

Everyone should find ways to keep their brain as active as possible. Finding a new hobby is one way to keep your brain active.  This includes learning to play a new instrument or challenging yourself to learn more difficult musical pieces on a familiar instrument.

Music is bi-hemispheric, which means it uses both sides of your brain.  For example, when former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head, she was shot in the left hemisphere of her brain.  It was very difficult for her to learn how to speak again because language is controlled by the left hemisphere.  However, speech therapists encouraged her to sing.  Singing is controlled by the right hemisphere and, by singing, her right hemisphere was able to eventually take over control of her speech, enabling her to talk again.

Does Music Help Patients Who Already Have Dementia?

Dementia patients may also be helped by exposure to music, but perhaps not in the way you think. According to Dr. Joshua Grill, a researcher in the MIND program at the University of California in Irvine, playing a dementia patient's favorite music may make them more alert and appear to be happier.   Music increases the dopamine, the reward hormone, in their brain.  This is especially true when they hear songs which have a pleasant association for them such as music from their youth or their favorite Christmas carols and other holiday music.

Because of the increase in dopamine, music may reduce the common Alzheimer's Disease symptoms of depression, apathy, agitation, aggression, excessive sleeping, and symptoms of psychosis.  As a result, many caregivers have found that playing the patient's favorite music makes it easier for the caregiver to take care of them.  Consequently, it can be said that music does help patients who already have dementia.

When dementia patients have listened to music from their youth, they often are able to sing along and learn the words to new songs, even when they are no longer able to remember the names of loved ones and have virtually stopped speaking in most situations.   The researchers at UCI MIND believe that music may remain a highly functioning part of the brain, even in a degenerating brain.  For some unknown reason, Alzheimer's disease, and perhaps other types of dementia, seems to spare the part of the brain involved in musical memory.

As a result, if you want your aging parent to enjoy time with the family during the Christmas holidays, for example, playing well-known and beloved holiday music in the background may help them stay more alert and cheerful.  This would also be true for other holidays and special occasions. That alone makes music a helpful addition to your holiday family traditions, especially when someone in the family is developing dementia.

Will Music Bring Back Memories in Dementia Patients?

Although learning how to play an instrument or learning how to play more complex music may help you postpone developing dementia, and listening to old music may brighten the day of a dementia patient and make it easier to manage them, there is no indication that music provides any type of generalized cognitive benefit for people who already have dementia.

In other words, music does not appear to bring back any memories for dementia patients, other than the memory of the music.  Listening to music, even if they sing along, will not make it easier for them to remember names, where they live, what they had for breakfast, when they should take their medication, significant events from their past or other important information.  The benefit which dementia patients derive from music seems to be very limited and temporary.  None-the-less, it is worthwhile to incorporate music into the lives of those with dementia because it seems to improve the quality of their lives and it can make it easier for the rest of the family to spend time with them.

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