Music therapy benefits those with Alzheimer's and Dementia

For senior patients, music therapy can be wonderfully beneficial, helping slow the progression of degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, and for aiding recovery from stroke. Although it is not as widely used as traditional therapies, many studies have shown that music therapy has the same positive effects on brain function, memory, and mood regulation. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to know that familiar sounds would aid in memory retention, and social interaction improves blood flow to the brain. Families caring for a loved one who has experienced a stroke or who suffers from dementia should seriously consider using music therapy as part of an integrative care plan.

Music therapy has only been formally used in the U.S. since the 1940s, when it was used to help World War II veterans suffering from shell shock, but the belief in the healing powers of music can be traced as far back as ancient Greece.

Music therapy is a process in which a therapist uses musical stimulation to help patients improve and maintain their health. Music therapy is used everywhere, from hospitals to nursing homes, private clinics to the privacy of your own living room. Therapists use music, singing, and dancing to engage with patients and achieve individual treatment objectives. These objectives may involve managing behavioral and developmental disorders, improving motor function, or stimulating brain function and memory.

Because it can be widely applied, music therapy has been shown to benefit many different patients with a large spectrum of health issues. Children, adolescents, adults, and senior citizens have all engaged in music therapy and shown positive responses. In addition to being used in professional sessions, the principles of music therapy can be applied informally in classrooms, the home or workplace, yoga and exercise sessions, or even during childbirth. The American Cancer Society endorses using music therapy as a way to help manage pain for chemotherapy and hospice patients.

In particular, many studies have recorded positive results for stroke and dementia patients who engage in music therapy. For victims of stroke, a form of music therapy called “melodic intonation” uses singing to help re-develop speaking skills. The principle of the therapy is that, because speech and melody are processed in different areas of the brain, stroke sufferers with reduced speaking abilities can re-train the brain for communication through song. Singing is used as a compensation for speech, the goal of which is to eventually strengthen the neural pathways of the brain to allow for better speech communication.

In 2006, Stanford University scientists held a symposium, “Brainwave Entrainment to External Rhythmic Stimuli: Interdisciplinary Research and Clinical Perspectives,” to present and share research concerning the power of music and musical stimuli on brain activity. Research showed that music helped stimulate brain activity, as brainwaves in listening subjects synced to the rhythm of the music. This is good news for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, as brain function degenerates as the condition progresses. This sort of stimuli can help improve a patient’s ability to concentrate, reducing symptoms of disorientation and confusion. The brain wave stimulation also showed a positive effect on blood flow throughout the brain, which can help heal the brain after damage or deterioration. Although the full effects of music therapy are not yet understood, Gabe Turow, a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Department of Music, says that “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication, in many circumstances.”

Music therapy has also shown positive effects on mood regulation in many patients. University of Miami researchers found that music therapy sessions can stimulate the release of melatonin, a hormone responsible for lowering aggression levels and symptoms of depression, and enhances sleep. In addition, the interactive, social nature of music therapy benefits patients who may feel isolated because of their condition, as well as alienated friends and family members.

Those who wish to use music therapy do not need to have any special musical abilities or talents. Patients do not need to rely on a particular type of music, either, as any style that he/she enjoys and can engage with will be beneficial. A trained music therapist can determine what is right for the patient and what goals should be pursued.

For those considering using music therapy as treatment for stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, it is important to consult a professional. Music therapists are certified by the Certification Board for Music Therapists and are given the designation of Registered Music Therapist, Certified Music Therapist, or Advanced Certified Music Therapist. Music therapy may be covered by Medicare and Medicaid programs, provided the treatment plan meets certain criteria.

The principles of music therapy can be applied in home care, as well. Sessions of 30 minutes or less, using familiar songs, hymns, or melodies, can be beneficial. Songbooks with musical notes and videos of nature noises should be avoided, however, as they may confuse and agitate some patients.

As an alternative treatment, music therapy shows a lot of promise for managing dementia and the effects of stroke. It cannot, like any alternative therapies, replace traditional medical care, but it is very effective as a supplement to help patients cope and prevent degeneration. These benefits also extend to the families of stroke and dementia patients, as the therapy can be both social and interpersonal, extending beyond the patient.