Melodies & Memories: Music's Answer to Alzheimer's

alzheimers music healing Aug 14, 2023

Above: Jim Donovan Drumming with family and person with Alzheimer's

The Harmonious Benefits of Interactive Music Activities for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients

As we age, concerns about brain health and cognitive decline naturally arise. While the onset of conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia can be concerning, there's hope and healing in unexpected places.

One such place is within the realm of music. Here, we explore seven benefits of interactive music activities for individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia. 

1. Memory Recall and Emotional Connection

Research has shown that music can stimulate parts of the brain associated with memory, even in individuals with severe Alzheimer's. A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that music therapy can help recall autobiographical memories, often leading to conversations and social interaction.

Activity Idea: Create a personalized playlist of songs from the individual's youth and early adulthood. Play these songs and engage them in a conversation about memories associated with each song.

2. Mood Enhancement and Reduction in Agitation

Music can evoke emotions in individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia, leading to improvements in mood and overall emotional well-being. A study in the eClinicalMedicine found that music therapy significantly reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms among older adults with dementia.

Activity Idea: Host a weekly sing-along session, choosing songs that are familiar and comforting. The act of singing can evoke positive emotions and reduce feelings of stress.

3. Social Interaction and Connectivity

Music activities often involve dancing, singing, and playing instruments, which can stimulate social interaction. A study in the SAGE journal found that group music therapy led to increased social engagement in people with Alzheimer's.

Activity Idea: Organize a group drumming circle. Using hand drums or simple percussion instruments, this activity encourages participation, interaction, and a sense of community.

4. Cognitive Stimulation and Brain Engagement

Photo: Bethany Seniors

Research from Alzheimers Research and Therapy journal the there is an improvement in cognitive functions after music therapy application. A greater effect was shown when patients are involved in the music making when using active music intervention

Activity Idea: Introduce rhythmic activities, like clapping or tapping to a beat. This simple activity stimulates the brain as individuals work to synchronize their actions with the rhythm.

5. Movement and Physical Coordination

Interactive music activities often involve movement, such as dancing or playing an instrument, which can enhance physical activity and coordination. A study in the The Gerontologist journal found that music-based exercise programs led to improvements in physical function in older adults with dementia.

Activity Idea: Initiate a dance movement therapy session, guiding participants to express themselves through movement. Even simple swaying to the music can enhance coordination and balance.

6. Speech and Vocalization Improvement

Vocalization activities like singing and chanting been shown to mitigate the challenging effects of chronic stress on cognition, reverse memory loss, and create psychological wellbeing, which may reduce multiple drivers of Alzheimer's disease risk. 

Activity Idea: Introduce "Kirtan Kriya meditation, call-and-response singing or vocal toning. Sing a line of a song and encourage the individual to sing it back. This can aid in speech fluency and confidence.

7. Pain Reduction

Research suggests that music can also help to alleviate pain and discomfort among individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia.

A study in Alzheimers Research and Therapy journal examined the effects of singing versus painting on 50 AD patients over a period of 12 weeks. Results showed that both therapies elicited benefits in reducing depression, anxiety, and pain. The only advantage that the singing group had over the painting group is the stabilization of verbal memory

Activity Idea: Guided Imagery with Instrumental Soundscapes: Pair soft, soothing music with a guided imagery session. The listener is encouraged to visualize serene settings, like a beach at sunset or a tranquil forest. This combined approach can divert attention from pain and anchor the individual in the calming scene set by the music and imagery.

Final thoughts

Embracing music is not just about enjoying melodious tunes. For those with Alzheimer's and dementia, interactive music activities can be a source of comfort, stimulation, and connection. Whether you’re a caregiver or someone keen on brain health, integrating music into the daily routine can offer a harmonious blend of therapeutic and soulful benefits.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Music and Alzheimer’s/Dementia

  1. How does music help Alzheimer's and dementia patients with memory recall?

    • Music can stimulate parts of the brain associated with memory. Interactive music activities, especially those involving familiar songs from an individual's past, can help recall autobiographical memories, leading to enhanced social interaction.
  2. Can music really enhance mood in Alzheimer's patients?

    • Yes, music has been shown to evoke emotions in individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia, leading to improvements in mood, reduced anxiety, and depressive symptoms.
  3. How does music encourage social interaction among these patients?

    • Activities involving music, such as dancing, singing, or playing instruments, stimulate social interaction. Group music therapy, for example, has been found to increase social engagement in Alzheimer's patients.
  4. Does music therapy have any cognitive benefits?

    • Research suggests that music therapy can lead to improvements in cognitive functions, especially when patients are actively involved in the music-making process.
  5. How can music activities improve physical coordination?

    • Interactive music activities that involve movement, like dancing or playing an instrument, can enhance physical activity, coordination, and even balance in individuals.
  6. Can music help in improving speech and vocalization for Alzheimer's patients?

    • Vocal activities like singing and chanting can aid in mitigating the effects of chronic stress on cognition, reversing memory loss, and enhancing psychological wellbeing. These benefits can indirectly support speech fluency and confidence.
  7. How does music play a role in pain reduction for Alzheimer's and dementia patients?

    • Music, when paired with activities like guided imagery, can help divert attention from pain and discomfort. Research has shown that singing can offer benefits in reducing depression, anxiety, and pain among these patients.
  8. Is there any advantage of singing over other therapeutic activities like painting for Alzheimer's patients?

    • Both singing and painting have therapeutic effects. However, one study indicated that singing had an added advantage of stabilizing verbal memory in Alzheimer's patients.
  9. What are some simple music-based activities to introduce to individuals with Alzheimer's or dementia?

    • Some activities include creating a personalized playlist, hosting weekly sing-along sessions, organizing drumming circles, introducing rhythmic activities, dance movement therapy, call-and-response singing, and guided imagery with instrumental soundscapes.
  10. Why should caregivers consider integrating music into the daily routine of Alzheimer's patients?

  • Music offers a range of therapeutic benefits, from improving mood and cognitive function to enhancing social interaction and physical activity. For Alzheimer's and dementia patients, music can serve as a source of comfort, stimulation, and connection.

Additional Resources:

Fact Sheet: Music Therapy and Dementia Care: Older Adults Living with Memory Disorders PDF

Alzheimer's Association

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The material provided on this site is for educational purposes only and any recommendations are not intended to replace the advice of your physician. You are encouraged to seek advice from a competent medical professional regarding the applicability of any recommendations with regard to your symptoms or condition.

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About the author:

Jim Donovan M.Ed. is a multi-platinum musician, educator and TEDx speaker.

His mission is to share the restorative power of music through education and performance.

Donovan is an Assistant Professor and Director of Music and Wellness at Saint Francis University.

His viral TEDx Talk "How to Trick Your Brain Into Falling Asleep" has been viewed over 6 million times to date.

He currently performs with his band The Sun King Warriors who can best described as as a blend of rhythm heavy roots rock, with a strong dose of big barreling drums. 

Jim Donovan got his start as a founding member of the multi-platinum selling band Rusted Root. 

There he co-wrote the song “Send Me on My Way” featured in the movies "Ice Age", "Matilda" and the Netflix series "New Girl".

During his time with the band 1990-2005, he recorded and released seven full length albums. Including "When I Woke" (3x platinum).

He also had the honor of sharing the stage with many of his musical influences and heroes including Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (1995 US/UK tour), Carlos Santana (1997/2002 US tour), The Allman Brothers Band (1995/96 US tour), The Grateful Dead (1995 Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA) and many others.

Send Me On My Way also became the first song on Mars where it “woke up” NASA’s Mars Rover.


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