MedPro Blog

Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month: Treating Alzheimer’s and Dementia with Music

Confusion, difficulty communicating, severe mood swings­­−over 55 million people are living with Alzheimer’s and other dementia worldwide. That number is expected to more than double by 2050, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International. While prescription drugs can slow down the progression of dementia and lessen symptoms, researchers are finding music can be an effective tool for coping with the illness.

We’re all aware of the impact music has on our moods. Upbeat songs energize us, while songs from our past make us feel nostalgic, but how can music treat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia? Patients don’t “lose” memories; they just lose access to them. Short-term memory is compromised first, then long-term memory, but music memories aren’t stored in the brain’s traditional memory networks. They’re stored in the auditory cortex, which perceives and processes sound and is one of the last areas affected by dementia.

When a patient listens to music, not only is their auditory cortex engaged, the process stimulates several parts of their brain already affected by dementia. Research on the impact of music therapy is still relatively new, but studies over the past decade have presented some interesting results, such as improved patient autobiographical voluntary and involuntary memory recall (memories of significant personal events) and improved patient speech and word recall.

In a 2010 peer-reviewed article for Neuropsychologia, researchers reported an increase in patients’ ability to recognize visually presented lyrics when they were sung rather than spoken. In a 2018 article published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers found that personalized music programs helped reduce patients’ agitation, anxiety, and behavioral symptoms. Music therapy also increased functional connectivity in corticocortical networks, which control eye movement, and in cortico cerebellar networks controlling visual attention and working memory. Researchers concluded that music not only activated the auditory cortex but had a “transient effect” on the brain and improved synchronization for improved motor skills. Finally, a 2020 article published in Frontiers in Medicine examined eight separate studies and found music therapy improved cognitive function, long-term depression symptoms, and patients’ quality of life. However, the therapy did not have any long-lasting effects.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementia, and scientists are just beginning to learn the impact of music on the brain. Still, studies confirm that music therapy can be an effective measure in lessening some dementia symptoms and improving a patient’s overall wellbeing. For more information about Alzheimer’s and dementia, visit the Alzheimer’s Association at alz.org and Alzheimer’s Disease International at alzint.org.