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

July 21, 2023
7 minute read
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What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive brain disorder that gradually impairs memory and cognitive functions, which can eventually lead to an inability to perform basic daily tasks. This decline in memory and thinking skills is a common characteristic observed in some individuals living with Alzheimer’s.

What is the prevalence of Alzheimer’s?

As of 2023, an estimated 6.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s - and this number is only projected to grow in years to come. As the elderly population in North America increases in size, there will be a corresponding rise in both the total count and percentage of those living with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. Not only will this rising number impact those living with Alzheimer’s, but can also affect their loved ones and caregivers. 

How are caregivers impacted?

Caring for those living with Alzheimer’s exists in many forms - whether it’s unpaid care provided by a spouse or loved one, or a paid caregiver trained to support those living with Alzheimer’s. 

Supporting individuals living with Alzheimer's often involves providing assistance with various activities of daily living, such as bathing and dressing. Caregivers also extend their support to encompass multiple instrumental activities of daily living, including tasks like handling bills, shopping, and utilizing transportation services. 

In addition to these practical responsibilities, caregivers play a crucial role in offering emotional support to those with Alzheimer's, helping them manage their health conditions, and facilitating communication and coordination with other family members and healthcare providers. This comprehensive approach ensures the safety and well-being of individuals living with Alzheimer's both at home and in other settings. 

Caregiver stress can arise during the process of caregiving for one living with Alzheimer’s. As the individual living with Alzheimer’s’ primary support system, burnout - both emotionally and physically may present itself. Ensuring that caregivers can also take time for themselves during the day is crucial. One way to provide caregivers with a moment of respite is by providing those living with Alzheimer’s access to therapeutic music experiences. 

How can music benefit those living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers?

While there is no known cure for Alzheimer's, emerging research suggests that music therapy can significantly enhance the lives of individuals living with Alzheimer’s. 

In a study by Särkämö et al., caregivers were trained to use musical interventions for patients living with dementia. The groups participated in singing activities, listening to music and discussions, or received usual treatment. The results showed that daily singing and listening to music improved overall cognition, orientation, attention, executive function, and mood compared to usual care. Continuous musical stimulation at home correlated with better working memory six months later. Additionally, those involved in musical activities had better autobiographical memory for childhood acquaintances six months after the training compared to the group not participating in musical activities. These findings suggest that music can be a beneficial tool for enhancing cognitive function and emotional well-being in individuals with dementia, with ongoing musical engagement potentially supporting long-term memory gains.

In another study, patients living with Alzheimer’s were divided into three groups: one group listened to and played American songs from the 1920s and 1930s, another group participated in jigsaw exercises, and the third group engaged in usual recreational activities like drawing, painting, and watching TV. The patients received six 30-minute intervention sessions per week for six months. The group that listened to music daily showed significant improvement in memory for personal history facts compared to the other groups, demonstrating the memory-enhancing effect that music can provide for those living with Alzheimer’s. 

A study conducted in Italy evaluated the effectiveness of a music therapy protocol, called Sound Training for Attention and Memory (STAM-Dem), for cognitive rehabilitation in patients diagnosed with dementia. The cognitive functions of the patients were assessed using various psychometric tests. Music therapists observed a positive effect of the music therapy intervention on visual selective attention and verbal episodic memory in the experimental group.

How is music being implemented as a therapeutic tool?

Music has a unique ability to tap into deep-seated memories and emotions that may remain intact even as one’s Alzheimer’s may progress. When familiar songs are played, individuals with Alzheimer's can experience a renewed sense of connection, triggering memories and eliciting positive emotional responses. 

The profound connection between Alzheimer's and music has opened doors to innovative care strategies that utilize music as a therapeutic tool:

  • Personalized playlists: Creating personalized playlists with familiar songs from the individual living with Alzheimer’s past can have a profound impact. Caregivers can work closely with patients and their families to identify significant musical memories and compile a collection of songs that resonate with their individual experiences.
  • Live music performances: Organizing live music performances or inviting musicians to play for Alzheimer's patients can create a stimulating and enjoyable experience. Live performances can generate emotional connections, boost engagement, and create lasting memories.
  • Music therapy programs: Qualified music therapists can develop tailored programs that incorporate music into various aspects of Alzheimer's care. These programs may include singing, instrument playing, songwriting, and movement-based activities, all carefully designed to address the specific cognitive, emotional, and physical needs of the individual.
  • Digital therapeutics: LUCID has developed a new music-based digital therapeutic to support the neuropsychiatric symptoms of dementia. They are currently conducting an exploratory trial, in which caregivers will use its existing digital therapeutic proven to reduce anxiety through different AI systems, on individuals living with mild cognitive impairment or early-stage dementia.

The therapeutic benefits of music for individuals with Alzheimer's disease are increasingly evident. Music possesses the unique power to tap into emotions, evoke memories, and improve overall well-being. As our understanding of the link between Alzheimer's and music grows, integrating music therapy into Alzheimer's care becomes a crucial aspect of person-centred treatment, and meeting individuals where they are. By incorporating music into daily routines and employing innovative techniques, caregivers and healthcare professionals can harness the healing potential of music, promoting connection, engagement, and a higher quality of life for individuals living with Alzheimer's.