Dear Doctors: My uncle has Alzheimer’s disease. He goes through these awful phases where he’s agitated and afraid. We’ve noticed that music calms him, especially when it’s something from when he was young. Why would that be?
Answer: You’ve had the good fortune to discover a therapeutic practice that reaches back at least to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle and Plato believed that music could soothe the troubled soul, and the physicians of their time employed musical instruments to induce sleep and ease mental disturbances.
Today, there’s a robust body of research into therapeutic uses of music for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Due to the unique way this type of dementia progresses, the areas of the brain that are linked to musical memory remain mostly free from damage. This allows Alzheimer’s patients to recognize and respond to music. This has proven helpful in managing periodic episodes of distress and agitation.
When researchers in Canada played new music for a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s, she didn’t respond. But when they played melodies she was familiar with, she sang along. She remembered all of the words, and she continued to accurately sing the songs even after the recordings ended.
Other researchers studying individuals with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease linked listening to music that was personally meaningful with improvements in neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to adapt in response to new experiences. Writing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the researchers said they found this to be particularly true when the person felt a deep connection to the music that was played.
Music is indeed incorporated into therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. It has been used to engage the patient in the present moment and with the hope it might have a beneficial effect on disease progression.
When connecting with your uncle through music, start by eliminating any competing sounds, such as a TV or radio, which can be confusing. Choose music he knows and loves and that evokes happy memories. Singing along, clapping or even dancing can enrich the experience for both of you.
If your uncle’s mood changes, be ready to switch songs or end the session. And be careful to avoid overstimulation. Keep things fun, easy and manageable.
As emerging research suggests, music could be a therapeutic pathway to benefit cognition.
Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists at UCLA Health.