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How Music Affects Memory in People with Alzheimer’s


The late Dick Clark once said that music is the soundtrack of your life. At any given moment, hearing a familiar or favorite song can take you back to a particular time and place in your life. It could be the song that played the first time you danced with your spouse, or the classical piece your child rehearsed on the piano over and over. In just seconds, hearing a piece of music can evoke the most powerful of memories.

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For years, therapists have understood the power of music. At nursing homes, hospices and hospitals, it’s not uncommon for specially-trained music therapists to ask a patient what songs they like and play them. The concept isn’t just about making a patient smile. Research shows that music is powerful medicine, with the ability to elevate mood, decrease anxiety, improve sleep quality and reduce pain. In short, it seems music can help heal some of what ails you.

Social worker Dan Cohen is a firm believer in the power of music. A radio interview he heard about how digital music players, like mp3 players and iPods, were ubiquitous in our society got him thinking. Thanks to technology, music of all genres and from all different time periods is now available at the touch of a button. No longer is a record player needed to hear a favorite Big Band tune. Just go online and find a Glen Miller CD on iTunes. After hearing the story, Cohen searched the Internet and couldn’t find a single nursing home that was using digital music with their patients on a regular basis, and he decided to change that.

Cohen asked his local nursing home if he could come in and bring some digital music players with custom-made playlists to patients. Through trial and error, he learned what songs each patient liked and the ones they didn’t, then he remixed the play list accordingly. Every two weeks for 18 months, the patients Cohen worked with received updated songs. And he taught caregivers how to create playlists too.

The reaction was amazing. Patients who used to be easily agitated soon seemed docile when a caregiver put headphones on them and encouraged them to listen. Others who were unresponsive suddenly lit up with awareness, and the ones who barely spoke suddenly wanted to converse.

Cohen says he has no shortage of success stories. He recounts the story of one man who knocked his food tray at nearly every meal. After listening to a play list of patriotic music, he suddenly snapped a salute. The former veteran who rarely talked suddenly couldn’t stop sharing stories about the John Wayne movies he would watch with his father as a child. After weeks of listening to the music, his aggression faded.

“I didn’t know there was already research about music and memory,” recalls Cohen. “I just wanted to help.”

Six years later, Cohen has done more than help, he’s changed lives. His small experiment has turned into a non-profit called Music and Memory, which has introduced iPods to as many as 50 nursing homes and assisted living centers in 15 states and Canada. A documentary about some of the many success stories has become a viral sensation.

As more people started to hear of Cohen’s efforts, they referred him to Concetta Tomaino, D.A., executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Functions in New York. For more than 30 years, she’s studied the mind-body connection of music, exploring why music reaches and impacts patients when other traditional therapies and medicines do not.

Dr. Tomaino explains that some older adults regress when they move into an unfamiliar place, such as an assisted living facility or nursing home; others become agitated or aggressive. But when a familiar song is played, it holds their attention and even improves it in a meaningful way.

The evidence isn’t just observational. Brain scans show that when people listen to music that’s autobiographical, music that evokes an important place, time or emotion for the listener, regions of the brain become stimulated, particularly the brain’s memory maker, the medial prefrontal cortex. That’s an important factor for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“Someone might not remember a spouse, but when they hear a song that they connect with the spouse it causes a reaction,” notes Tomaino. “And if the spouse is there, there’s a sense of recognition and knowing towards that person.”

Susan Crossley, a certified dementia practitioner and activities director at Bethany Village in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, can attest to the progress she’s seen in the 50 residents who are part of Music and Memory grant program. Approximately 20 percent of the patients are in the late stages of Alzheimer’s.

“You see the tension releasing (as they listen to their iPods),” she says. “The foot tapping, the wrinkles in their foreheads fade away and you know the music is reaching them.”

Bethany Village utilizes music and art therapists, says Crossley, but those therapists can’t visit every patient every day, and the therapy results can only be sustained for a certain time. By using iPods, patients can listen to their music whenever they want, just about anyone can assist them and the benefits become cumulative. According to Crossley, caregivers can better assist patients when they are more responsive and less combative.

It’s not just Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who can benefit from this particular type of music therapy. Dr. Tomaino says when the auditory system is stimulated it can even override pain signals, providing relief in a way medicine sometimes cannot. Chemical changes occur, too, when patients hear music. Scientific evidence shows that listening to music you enjoy increases serotonin in the brain and decreases the stress hormone cortisol.

At Bethany Village, the results have been so successful some patients in the program have either been taken off medication for depression and anxiety or require a reduced dose, Crossley says. Instead of drugs, they’re on a nearly no-cost prescription of music.

“It’s been so incredible,” Crossley says of the individualized music programs. “I have patients who do the wheelchair boogie with themselves as they wheel down the hallway. It’s just so joyful.”

Cohen wants that same joy to be available to every older adult. His foundation collects used digital music players to distribute to nursing homes, assisted living centers, hospitals and other health care facilities. Music and Memory also trains other organizations on how to hold collection drives and create playlists, so members can follow Cohen’s example and start programs at their own communities. His goal is for this version of music therapy to become the standard of care. Cohen is currently working on a research study to quantify the results at several of pilot programs around the country. Canadian scientists are also studying his concept, as well.

“People have really known about this all along,” says Cohen. Hopefully, with research, there will be no denying what can happen when technology meets music and the motivation of one man.

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