Music and Dementia

On the most basic level, short-term memory uses different parts of the brain in healthy people and those with Alzheimer’s. In Alzheimer’s sufferers’ brains, these parts are the same as those involved in processing emotions which may be why music and singing, with their strong emotional content, have such power to enhance memory.

Research shows that musical memory survives relatively well in dementia.

Rhythm acts as a kind of sensory timer, helping along the brain mechanisms that control timing, coordination and muscle function, making things flow more easily.

It attracts our attention and helps us keep focus.

Just as in early years rhythm helps learning and memory and enables us to break up information into bite-size, memorable chunks such as times tables or long phone numbers, rhythm and rhythmic music can aid recall and physical movement in people with dementia.

Combining these two elements, music learned earlier in life can bring access to memories and the language to talk about them, and in a small way help people with dementia to function better in general.

Therapeutic singing groups – see for details.
Click here to see Alzheimer’s Society group singing live on BBC Look East.

NB these involve no cost to the singers and are run by various charities and health providers with the support of trained volunteers.

Singing is always good and the health benefits for everyone are a given: breathing, heart, release of mood-enhancing hormones, etc, but therapeutic singing groups go much further than nostalgic singalongs in that they includes activities to work specifically on:

• breaking up the repetitive loops of thought (perseveration) which dementia can bring,
• gently easing physical movement, particularly using both sides of the body,
• restoring confidence by musical work on recalling and rebuilding half-forgotten memories,
• encouraging alertness and interaction with activities which may seem like fun but nevertheless never condescend or patronise.

Helpful References

Michael H.Thaut, Rhythm, Music and the Brain (Routledge, 2005)
E.Gotell, S.Brown, Sirkka-Liisa Ekman, “Caregiver Singing and Background Music in Dementia Care”, Western Journal of Nursing Research (2002, Vol.24, Issue 2, pp195-216)

Heather Edwards: 01603 452404