Good Vibrations: How is music tackling Alzheimer’s Disease?

Neuroscientists and doctors alike have voiced their concerns about the growing number of people affected by Alzheimer’s Disease: it is thought by 2045 the current Irish prevalence will have doubled, meaning over 150,000 people will live with the condition. According to The Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland over 64,000 Irish people are living with this disease today

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, and upsettingly still no cure exists. People affected can find the disease very debilitating, as the brain regions under fire can lead to patients facing increasing trouble remembering things clearly, and issues with emotional control. However, recent findings have revealed music can be very powerful in aiding the emotional well-being of Alzheimer’s patients.

A group of scientists led by Jörn-Henrik Jacobsen found in 2015 that musical memory appears to work more independently of the other brain memory systems sabotaged by Alzheimer’s Disease. The brain areas important for musical recognition, processing and musical memory have been discovered as relatively undamaged by Alzheimer’s Disease, leaving musical memories often much preserved in patients.  

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These discoveries have sparked therapies for patients suffering this condition that are heavily reliant on the magic of music. Music has been shown to reduce agitation and stress in patients and gives a strong platform to communicate in late disease stages, when many words may be lost to a person. Even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, a person still may be able to sing parts of a childhood song or tap a beat. 

Last November music therapist Alaine Reschke-Hernández and her team from the University of Iowa published new findings exploring how patients with Alzheimer’s may benefit emotionally from music exposure, even after it has stopped playing.

Reschke-Hernández’s quirkily titled research paper “Hooked on a Feeling: Influence of Brief Exposure to Familiar Music on Feelings of Emotion in Individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease” concludes that a quick listen to some music can cause strong and lingering emotions in patients with Alzheimer’s, even after the person no longer remembers listening to the song or melody in the first place. 

Other papers have shown music therapy improves the quality of life of people with dementia and has long-term alleviating effects on the symptoms of depression linked with dementia. Music interventions are being used increasingly widely as a potential non-pharmacological therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Researchers suggest care must be taken when choosing and using music that will most effectively promote good feeling and alleviate the disease’s effects on the patient. The American Alzheimer’s Association suggests selecting music familiar and enjoyable for the person, if possible helping the person pick out the music themselves, and to encourage happy movements like clapping or dancing to the tunes. 

Also crucial for effective therapy is the avoidance of music interrupted constantly by advertisements, an excessively high volume and competing noises such as TV audio, which could cause unpleasant sensory overload and confusion for the person. 

Being an easily implemented, inexpensive, and potentially jovial treatment for a person struggling with Alzheimer’s, music presents a major area of thought for clinicians and caregivers involved. Hopefully, the future holds further solutions, musical or otherwise, to combat the increasingly prevalent issues we face with Alzheimer’s Disease.

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Emma Monaghan

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