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How Does Music Help Dementia?

Music in Mind
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Music is hugely powerful. By stirring up emotions and memories it has the power to connect us to our past, to the present moment and to each other. It can inspire us and relax us, fill us up with energy or focus us down in concentration. It’s been proven to have amazing therapeutic benefits for a wide range of mental health and cognitive conditions, dementia included. But the big question is: why?

The Science

There’s a huge amount of scientific research into how music affects the brain and the wider impacts it has on human behaviour. Playing and listening to music touches every part of the brain, from your frontal lobe (which is used in thinking, decision making and planning) through to the hippocampus (which produces, regulates, and retrieves memories). As a result, it can improve our communication and coordination, make us stronger, smarter, and more emotionally aware. It can even boost our immune system or assist in medical issues like repairing brain damage, reducing seizures, and help in neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

Some of these amazing effects are caused by the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, others simply by putting your grey matter to good use and keeping those neurons stimulated. Either way, many scientific papers and academic reviews have long concluded that musical intervention can have a profound effect on how we feel pain, anxiety, depression, or regulate our mood in general, whether we are children or adults, and in all manner of different environments.

Shared Connections

First and foremost, music helps dementia by being a shared and universal experience. Anyone can listen to and enjoy music. It has the power to anchor you in the present moment and connect you to anyone else listening too. When shared with families, carers and loved ones, music is a wonderful source of enjoyment and entertainment.

Any genre of music can be shared, so long as it is being enjoyed! You might sing along or just tap a beat. Music can be enjoyed and used to connect even when verbal communication has become difficult.

The primary goal of any of the Music in Mind music sessions is to ensure that all participants are given the autonomy to make take part in the music making, have fun, and can experience a sense of joy, community, and togetherness. It is accessible for people living with dementia of all stages, and something that can be incorporated into dementia care in all environments. Music can be accessed at little or no cost and requires no skill as a musician to enjoy and appreciate it. Although, anyone who is living with dementia who can play an instrument might find even additional benefits from music owing to musical memory.

Musical Memories

Music evokes memory. You hear a song and it can transport you instantly, reminding you of people and places you thought you’d forgotten. It might even bring back memories in your other senses (touch, smell, taste) or cause you to feel the same way you did back then. How far back these memories go can be especially surprising. Research suggests that our ability to retain memory for music enjoyed between the ages 10 and 30 is particularly enduring. Even for people living with dementia, music has been shown time and time again to allow them to recall moments from their past associated with a particular song or melody.

While this effect might feel like ordinary memory, scientific studies have shown that musical memory is a phenomenon in its own right, with music able to access and light up parts of the brain that many other activities can’t. As a result of being able to tap into so many different regions, pathways and processes in our brains, musical memories and any associated emotions and perceptions appear able to come back to us even when other forms of memory or behaviours can’t.

For those who play an instrument, you are likely to have an even more enhanced musical memory, helped by an added element of stored muscle memory. This can allow many expert musicians living with dementia to keep playing and performing even at late stages of their illness. Performers such as Glen Campbell, Tony Bennett and Aaron Copland are all examples of this.

Continuing Research

Research and evidence into the full extent of the impacts of music on dementia are still ongoing. Studies into gaps such as how both listening to and playing music can prevent the onset or progression of dementia will hopefully help us understand more not just about the relationship into music and dementia but of dementia itself.

As it stands, however, we have plenty of proof and evidence (much of which forms the basis of the Music in Mind programme) that music can help to alleviate the symptoms of dementia and improve the quality of life for those who are living with it, their families and carers. The very core nature of music as something that can be shared and enjoyed means it remains a valuable and important addition to dementia care, and one we hope to continue to share with as many people as possible.