Benefits of Music and Art Therapy for People with Alzheimers Disease

Alzheimers disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia, and a secondary cause of death in many industrialized nations. In the U.S., it is estimated that between 2.4 to 4.5 million people currently have Alzheimers disease. Although AD is incurable, within the past decade, researchers have focused on music and art therapy as a beneficial palliative treatment for people with AD.

Although many people with advanced AD are unable to communicate with language, art and music therapy has shown promise as a way for people to express themselves. Jiska Cohen-Mansfield, observed that the violent behavior of AD often occurred when their room was dark and they were alone. She found that one-third of her patients decreased their violent behavior in response to music. Cohen-Mansfield also discovered that music was more effective than psychotropic drugs or restraints. Music appears to be an effective therapy because it reduces social isolation and agitation experienced by people with dementia.

The responsiveness of people with AD to music is a remarkable phenomenon. While language deterioration is a feature of dementia, musical ability appears to be preserved. This may be because the fundamentals of language are musical. In addition, while language processing may be dominant in one hemisphere of the brain, music production involves both brain hemispheres. Support for this theory comes from Boston University School of Medicine researchers who have shown that people with Alzheimers disease are better able to remember new verbal information when it is provided in the context of music even when compared to healthy, older adults.

To be effective, music therapy should be tailored to the functional capacity of each individual. Therapy should be based on treatment objectives including social interaction, mood improvement, speech stimulation, mental process organization, sensory stimulation and motor integration.

Music therapy provides opportunities for:

  • Memory recall which contributes to reminiscence and improved quality of life
  • Positive changes in mood and emotional states
  • Anxiety and stress reduction for people with AD and their caregivers
  • Non-pharmacological management of pain and discomfort
  • Stimulation which promotes interest even when no other approach is effective
  • Continuous movement or vocal fluency as an adjunct to physical rehabilitation
  • Emotional intimacy when spouses and families share creative music experiences
  • Social interaction with caregivers and families

Art therapy has also been shown to decrease anxiety and apathy, which are common symptoms in people with AD. Art appears to open emotional memories related to events and people in their past lives. Researchers are not sure why art has this effect, but there is evidence to suggest that most memories are stored as images and are not destroyed by AD.

Art therapy might be very beneficial to people with AD because, though they gradually lose the ability to express themselves with words, other parts of the brain that deal with color and composition can still be used and developed. Even people with advanced AD can continue to create art.

Art therapy:

  • Allows people with AD to connect with others in non-verbal ways.
  • Improves concentration.Art therapy focuses on untapped areas of the brain and helps to improve concentration in people with AD.Art therapy emphasizes abilities that are still available and can be developed.
  • Improves behavior. Both viewing and creating art can have a calming effect on someone with AD. Art therapy can promote relaxation, improve mood, and decrease aggressive behaviors.

In summary, the creative arts can reunite even a late stage Alzheimers sufferer with parts of his/her former self. Art and music therapeutic options have shown to be comparable to pharmaceutical options to reduce anxiety, aggression, agitation and apathy. In fact, art and music therapy can tap into parts of the brain that are not damaged from the effects of AD and provide a means of expression, which results in increased quality of life for people with Alzheimers disease.