How familiar music can impact those living with Alzheimer’s

August 1, 2023
7 minute read
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For quite some time, it has been established that those living with Alzheimer's often retain their musical memories even as other parts of their brains are negatively impacted, leading to the loss of names, faces, and places.

Listening to and engaging with familiar music has been shown to positively impact those living with Alzheimer’s, in improving their autobiographical memory, evoking an emotional response, and providing them with a moment of respite. 

               RELATED: Making Harmonious Connections: Music as a Powerful Tool in Alzheimer's Care

What is Familiar Music?

Simply put, familiar music is music that one has heard a lot, or enjoyed, in their past. Whether it be from two decades ago to a couple months in the past, familiar music can elicit memories from one’s past and can bring them back to a different time in their lives. 

The human brain can recognize familiar tunes within an incredibly short time frame of 100 milliseconds (0.1 seconds) after hearing the sound. Understanding and exploring how the brain recognizes familiar songs can be beneficial for the development of music-based therapeutic interventions, and can be especially significant for those living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. 

Understanding Familiar Music and Alzheimer's

What Research Supports the Benefits of Familiar Music?

Canadian researchers have shed light on the reason behind the efficacy of familiar music pertaining to memory in those living with Alzheimer’s, thanks to the utilization of MRI brain scanning. They conducted a study with 20 individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairment, who were subjected to MRI scans while listening to both familiar music and an unfamiliar composition.

When listening to the previously unknown composition, the researchers observed activation in a brain region known as the temporal lobe, which is a typical response when people listen to any type of auditory stimulus.

However, when the subjects listened to familiar music, selected from their own playlists spanning back at least two decades, a much more extensive pattern of activation occurred in multiple areas of the brain. These included regions associated with emotion, language processing, movement, and memory. 

In the study, it was expected for the temporal lobe to be activated by any auditory input, but the unique and extensive activation observed during familiar music listening indicated a deeper connection with emotional and autobiographical memory. Even individuals living with advanced stages of Alzheimer's can recall melodies, lyrics, and memories attached to songs from their past. 

Another study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease reveals that familiar music can evoke prolonged emotional responses in individuals living with Alzheimer's. The study aimed to investigate whether emotions triggered by music persist even without conscious recollection of the music.

The research involved 20 participants living with Alzheimer's and 19 participants living without. They were asked to listen to two blocks of music they personally selected, aiming to elicit either a happy or sad response. Both groups reported increased feelings of happiness or sadness after listening to the corresponding musical selections for up to 20 minutes after the music session concluded, despite those living with Alzheimer's exhibiting impaired memory for the music compared to the healthy group.

The study's findings suggest that lasting emotional responses can be induced by stimuli even when the cause of those emotions is not remembered. It also demonstrates how music listening, with careful selection and response monitoring, could serve as an effective therapeutic tool when caring for those living with Alzheimer's.

               RELATED: 5 things you should know about music and dementia

How can one create a playlist with familiar music for a loved one living with Alzheimer’s?

When caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s, or trying to connect with a loved one who is living with Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment, it can be difficult picking songs to add to a playlist of familiar music to play them. 

This blog dives into an in depth list of things to look out for, and best practices for creating a playlist for a loved one living with Alzheimer’s. 

TL;DR: In caring for someone living with Alzheimer's, creating a personalized playlist with songs tied to their earliest memories can evoke significant emotional responses. Consider the music popular during their youth, their wedding song, and the songs enjoyed together. Engage friends and family for song suggestions and don't hesitate to include holiday music. Be open to experimenting and adjusting the playlist based on their reactions to find the most meaningful musical connections.

How is Familiar Music for those living with Alzheimer’s being validated?

The benefits of music therapy have been known for quite some time, but harnessing those benefits into applicable therapeutics for those living with Alzheimer’s are still being explored. 

LUCID is currently validating the efficacy of a digital therapeutic using familiar music in those living with early dementia and mild cognitive impairment. These individuals and their caregivers are participating in LUCID’s study which leverages wearable devices and cameras to recommend them music that reduces agitation. Users listen to engaging, familiar music choices curated specifically for populations aged 65 and over from various genres and eras of popular music.