Dementia and the Importance of Music

We all have songs that evoke vivid and distinct memories of events or parts of our lives. They stir up old emotions of joy or sadness, and their impact is undeniable.

We’re now beginning to understand why music affects us so profoundly. Using brain imaging techniques like MRIs, scientists have been able to look at what happens in the brain when people listen to music. All activities stimulate some part of the brain, but listening to music stimulates many different parts of the brain at once. In fact, music lights up more of the brain than any other stimulus.

Music turns on the parts of the brain responsible for motor control, timing, language, memory and emotions. It has the biggest impact on what is called the limbic system, the brain cells related to feelings – especially feelings of reward and pleasure. This means that when you hear a song or melody you like, the feeling of satisfaction is like winning a prize or enjoying a favourite food as a reward for a job well-done. Listening to music we like releases a chemical called dopamine in the brain, which makes us feel happy and pleased. So, the more we like a song, the more excited we’ll feel upon hearing it.

Music is also able to make us feel sad or scared. The part of the brain associated with fear is very responsive to music. Watching a scary movie with eerie music can create such anxiety that our hearts race and our palms start to sweat. On the other hand, hospitals have found that relaxing, mellow music can calm frightened patients so much that their recovery from surgery is quicker and requires less medication.

Despite the extremely wide variations in music styles, patterns and rhythms from culture to culture, and age group to age group, the emotional response to music is universal. People in Europe, Africa and Asia will all identify the same pieces of music as being happy, sad, anxiety-producing or comforting.

Certain types of music, especially classical, have been reported to boost memory and concentration levels at least temporarily. This is why children are taught to memorize multiplication tables and the alphabet to a familiar sing-song.

There are people who believe that music is something best enjoyed privately, but it is really a social experience. Except for some solo artists, most music is made by groups of people playing together and it is best enjoyed live. Studies have shown that people’s brains react more strongly to live music, played by real people than to the same music played by a machine.

Music helps us be happy and it has the power to draw us together.

Music energizes. A grandmother who was in a nursing home in an advanced state of dementia, was sat down in front of a never used piano in the activity room by her visiting family. In her youth she had been a performing pianist, and later taught piano. When encouraged, she started playing the nursing home piano, and playing it really well. From that day on, until she was physically unable to move, she played the piano every day, despite suffering from dementia. She lived past her hundredth birthday and died shortly after she stopped being able to play.

The implication of this for the caregivers of seniors is profound. If possible, seniors even those with advanced dementia or other neurological conditions should always be exposed to and have access to music. Families should ensure that caregivers know what a senior’s favourite songs are, and what kind of music they have enjoyed. Singing their favourites to them, and maybe even along with them, should also be encouraged.

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