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We have all experienced the power of music to change our mood or transport us to another place and time. Music has been proven to trigger several regions in our brains, including those linked to memories and emotions. Alzheimer’s and dementia (AD) cause a wide variety of cognitive, behavioral and psychological symptoms. An estimated 5.2 million Americans suffer from AD, which affects a countless number of friends and family members. Music offers benefits for many seniors with these conditions to improve their quality of life.

The Effects of Alzheimer’s and Dementia

The symptoms Alzheimer’s and dementia patients vary, but the effects are always devastating. The primary symptoms are memory loss and confusion. People often experience cognitive, behavioral, mood, psychological and physical symptoms. They can have difficulty thinking, concentrating and recognizing familiar people and places.

Some people experience personality changes, aggression, agitation, and irritability. Other symptoms include depression or paranoia. It may also impact appetite, muscle movements and speech. Watching a loved one experiencing Alzheimer's and dementia is painful. Nothing can prepare you for the day that they no longer recognize you. As their personality changes, it affects your connection with them. However, for some patients, music can help them reconnect with the world for a while.

Your Brain on Music

Our response to music is physiological. Amazingly, music triggers many areas of the brain, including those involved in motor skills, emotions and creativity. Music affects more parts of our brain than any other stimuli. Brain function imaging shows familiar music activates regions in the brain linked to emotions and autobiographical memories.

Soothing music is effective in reducing stress and agitation for many people with AD. Music therapy tailored to the listener can have dramatic effects. Family members and caregivers work together to select songs that have meaning for the patient. As they lose the ability to communicate, people often become withdrawn. Music is a tool that helps them reconnect with people and prompts interaction. A patient experiencing the joy of listening to familiar tunes or dancing will often reach out to those around them with communication and even touch. This kind of interaction means a great deal to family members and caregivers.

We still have a great deal to learn about the science behind music’s impact, but we know in addition to the physical stimulation of our brains, it may also affect hormone and chemical production. There is some evidence that music may lower the production of cortisol, which is also known as the stress hormone. Different types of music affect us in a variety of ways. The effects may also vary from person to person.

Music Brings Us to Life

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In 2012, a Reddit user posted a YouTube video of Henry, a non-communicative Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home who came alive upon hearing his music and began rapidly sharing recollections from his youth. People watched videos of Henry’s amazing experience over 15 million times. They experienced joy at seeing Henry’s response to music and disbelief at how much it affected him considering that he seemed so lost only moments before. Suddenly, people were using the comments section to share their personal experiences with AD. Music touched Henry, which in turn touched millions.

It’s an emotional experience to see a person with AD respond to a familiar song they have not heard in a long time. The response is immediate. When they listen to a familiar song, they often begin to move and sing along. It encourages engagement and interaction. They share recollections from their past.

Music is of particular importance for people in late stage AD since music appreciation remains long after most other abilities have passed. Music remains an opportunity to reach someone who has become unresponsive to other stimuli. It allows us to see their essence again.

Music as Treatment

In the 2014 documentary Alive Inside, winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Audience Award, Social Worker Dan Cohen set out to prove the benefits of digital music players with individualized playlists for elders regard

less of their physical or cognitive abilities. He founded Music and Memory, a non-profit organization that brings personalized music to people with AD. The federal government is now funding studies based on his research.

Music therapy is also available through licensed music therapists trained to improve their clients' physical and mental health. They work with them to enhance their cognitive skills, movement and memory to improve their quality of life. Patients do this by singing, dancing, listening to music and, if possible, playing instruments.

There are thousands of stories people have shared about the beneficial effects of music on their loved ones who suffer from AD. Music may be medicine for the body and soul. Its increasing use in senior care facilities is good news for patients and their loved ones.

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