Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe any abnormal impairments that alter an individual’s memory, rationale, and ability to make daily choices. In other words, it is associated with a decline in explicit memory.
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were five million individuals over the age of 65 with dementia, but this number is expected to be 14 million by 2060. It can manifest as a loss of independence in completing tasks, mixing up vocabulary for usually obvious objects, or getting lost on a route that a person takes often. There are many factors that can increase the risk of dementia including age, family history, race, ethnicity, cardiac issues, or brain injuries.
Currently, dementia is treated based on the form that it presents itself as. Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia, is a neurodegenerative disorder that currently is only managed by medications targeting symptoms and protecting the brain. But beyond medication, one unexpected form of prevention and intervention for dementia is music!
Music is associated with reactivating the areas of the brain involved in the manifestation of dementia symptoms, such as memory, rationale, and decision-making. This relationship led to the theory that music can be helpful in terms of memory formation and retrieval, which is in agreement with an article in Harvard Health publishing.
Studies have been conducted on the risk of developing dementia in individuals who play musical instruments. A 2020 twin study found that musicians are 64 per cent less likely to develop cognitive impairments or dementia than individuals who don’t play music. In a 2017 meta-analysis using data from 5,693 participants, 745 of which were musicians, the musicians were found to be 59 per cent less likely to develop dementia.
Music has the potential to enhance a dementia patient’s frame of mind, the way that they conduct themselves, and even their cognitive abilities. These positive effects can last beyond the time that the music is being played. The music played does not have to be significant to the patient to have a positive effect, and the patient does not have to possess any musical talent or ability.
Agitation is a common symptom of dementia that can be reduced in a patient through the enjoyment of music. Agitation can cause frustration for both a patient and their caregiver, which can be exacerbated by another common manifestation of the disease, the inability to communicate. Music can help by facilitating connections between the patient and their loved ones at a time when words are impossible to convey.
Studies of patients with Alzheimer’s disease found that the ability to learn, produce, and create music remains intact. In terms of recognizing music they already knew, subjects functioned normally. This is likely due to the fact that the parts of the hippocampus and amygdala involved in musical appreciation and memory is the last area to be affected by dementia.
However, patients suffered impairments when learning and recognizing new songs, unless they were taught through repetition. In the case of repetition, the recognition could last up to eight weeks, according to a study conducted in 2009.
Bayshore Healthcare, a community healthcare center, put together a list of steps that you can take to enhance the quality of life of a loved one with dementia through music. It stresses the importance of starting with music at a low volume and playing more calming or soothing music in order to reduce agitation.
You can create a playlist of songs that you know hold significance to them, or are reminiscent of their early days. It is important for them to engage with the music, whether it be through singing — which can stimulate brain activity — dancing, tapping, or playing an instrument. Finally, being mindful of how they respond to the different songs and adjusting what you play based on that is a good strategy to provide the best experience for individuals with dementia.