Alzheimer’s is a devastating illness that impairs a person’s capacity for thought, reasoning, memory, and independent functioning. Amyloid plaques are protein clumps that form between neurons in the brain and destroy them. Tau protein tangles twist inside brain nerve cells, making it challenging for these cells to communicate and carry nutrients. As a result, brain cells degenerate, causing loss of memory, knowledge, and (in the later stages) personality. In late-stage Alzheimer’s, your loved one may no longer recognize family members or engage in regular activities.
People with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia rarely have difficulties processing music. A few studies have found that music can access parts of the brain that have not been destroyed by Alzheimer’s or that are not affected until much later in the disease’s progression.
How music benefits cognitive health
Music is a creative mix of rhythm, harmony, and emotional expression, whether instrumental or lyrical. Additionally, numerous research studies have confirmed its many health advantages.
For instance, a 2013 study discovered that listening to music before stressful situations can assist the nervous system in relaxing and recovering more quickly . In the same year, another study reported that children in hospitals who were listening to music experienced less pain and anxiety .
In addition to its physiological advantages, research has shown that music has a good effect on cognitive health.
According to a recent study, practicing and actively listening to music might reduce cognitive function decline in individuals aged 62 to 78 . The ability of the brain to rewire itself is essential for learning and memory formation, and the researchers discovered that participating in musical activities boosted the gray matter in several areas of the brain.
In terms of actively learning music, a study from 2023 revealed that regular music training might offer the brain considerable functional advantages and help keep it young .
Researchers have discovered that despite considerable impairment of our brain’s executive functions, such as reasoning, judgment, planning, speaking, and language, our response to music remains retained. According to studies, even in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the capacity to sing, play an instrument, or write may remain unaffected . There are several cases where musicians with Alzheimer’s have even learned to play new music .
According to these findings, music has the potential to be an effective therapeutic tool for the treatment of dementia, a condition marked by a variety of symptoms such as memory loss and issues with thinking, language, and problem-solving.
Where does the brain process music?
Brain scans of research participants while they were listening to music were used to determine the brain regions that link and store music, memory, and emotion . According to the study, this activity occurs in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is present behind the forehead. Additionally, as the symptoms of Alzheimer’s worsen, it is one of the last brain regions to atrophy.
A further study found that the frontal and parietal regions of the brain, which are less prone to amyloid plaques and other pathologies associated with Alzheimer’s, are among the parts of the brain that have music memory networks .
Music causes the brain to release chemicals.
According to research, music’s ability to trigger the production of specific brain chemicals is just as crucial as the memory network’s placement in the brain. Dopamine, one of the brain neurotransmitters involved in producing a pleasure/reward response, is released in reaction to music .
Other research has demonstrated that listening to music enhances the production of oxytocin, which fosters bonding and love relationships while decreasing the release of cortisol, which lessens the stress response .
Additionally, research has demonstrated that listening to music increases the production of hormones that improve mood and reduce stress and agitation, including melatonin, serotonin, prolactin, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
Musical memories last longer
Researchers agree that the parts of the brain that music stimulates are affected much later in Alzheimer’s. Since musical memories are procedural memories, they can last longer in Alzheimer’s. We sing to the song or tap our feet to music without thinking about it. It is a routine or habit like riding a bike, driving, or brushing teeth. Procedural memories differ from other memories that originate in the hippocampus of the brain, one of the first areas to experience destruction in Alzheimer’s.
You might have seen that famous singers and musicians with progressing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia may be unable to recollect the names of loved ones or friends or hold conversations longer than a few phrases but can sing all their hits or play the piano or violin flawlessly. They are utilizing their procedural memory that has been entrenched over time and is retained in a different part of the brain than the parts that store your shopping list, checkbook balance, or knowledge of scheduling an appointment.
Music as therapy
The purpose of employing music for your Alzheimer’s patients is not to entertain or divert them but to achieve beneficial healthcare outcomes. Depending on your loved one’s disease stage and the music played, a music therapist or caregiver might elicit a physical, emotional, social, or cognitive reaction.
In general, the purpose is to provide comfort and connection. Music can aid a loved one who is anxious or depressed. A 2018 study found that music therapy reduced the usage of antipsychotic and anti-anxiety drugs in nursing homes and assisted living institutions .
Music therapy is an entertaining and economical technique to improve the quality of life and deal with challenging behaviors of your Alzheimer’s patients at home or in a facility without the use of medicines.
You can use music to relive memories connected to particular songs to calm anxiety and agitation, relax pain and blood pressure, and foster social connections. It can improve the quality of life for both your Alzheimer’s patient and you as the caregiver.
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