The Benefits of Music for People with Memory Loss

Recent research strongly suggests that listening to, dancing to, and singing music can lift the spirits of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Neurologist Jonathan Graff-Radford, in an article in the Mayo Clinic’s blog, says that “musical memories” tend to be preserved in Alzheimer’s because the disease leaves key brain areas relatively unaffected.

Studies have shown that exposure to music can relieve stress, lessen anxiety and depression, and reduce agitation in people with Alzheimer’s and related memory-loss conditions.

Playing music can also bring relief and joy to caregivers by lightening the mood—thereby lowering anxiety and stress—and helping caregivers connect with loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease, especially those who have trouble communicating.

How can you use music to help relieve the symptoms of a loved one with Alzheimer’s and to foster connection? Consider putting their favorite music on an iPod (making sure that caregivers know how to turn it on and use it) or get them a portable CD player and CD’s.

What kind of music does your loved one respond to? The power of music may be understood because implicit memories are relatively well preserved in people living with dementia. Implicit memory is associated with routines and repetitive activities. All of us tend to listen repeatedly to music we like. Because Alzheimer’s affects the ability to form new memories, music we once loved remains accessible in the brain.

Music can calm or stimulate. To relax your loved one during meals or a hygiene routine, play music or sing a song that’s soothing. To boost the mood, choose faster-paced tunes. 

Avoid overstimulation. Eliminate competing noise. Turn off the TV. Shut the door. Set the music volume for your loved one’s hearing ability. Choose uninterrupted music (no commercials), which can cause confusion.

Get moving! Encourage loved ones to clap with the song or tap their feet to the beat. Dance along!

Sing out loud. Singing along can boost the mood and enhance your relationship. Some early studies suggest musical memory functions differently from other types of memory, and singing can help stimulate unique memories.

Pay attention. If your loved one enjoys particular songs, play them often. If he or she reacts negatively, play something else.