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A Reflection of The Effects of Music on Memory in Alzheimer and Dementia Patients

Written By Hannah Heithoff, Member of Music For Dementia

It is well-established that music therapy has a positive effect on patients with Alzheimer’s. In fact, various studies have shown that music therapy can decrease levels of agitation (Pedersen et al., 2017), anxiety (Sung et al., 2010), and depression (Chu et al., 2014) in people living with dementia. I have personally seen this effect through my time as a volunteer with Music For Dementia at Brookdale Senior Living, where I perform live music and interact with the residents. From those experiences, I have noticed that the residents seemed to cheer up whenever me or one of the other members would play a song, and they would sometimes even clap along and engage themselves with the music. These findings made me all the more eager to learn more about music therapy’s effects on Alzheimer’s patients. As I was doing research on the topic, one article caught my attention: “A Preliminary Exploration of the Stability of Music- and Photo-Evoked Autobiographical Memories in People with Alzheimer’s and Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia”. This article examined music- and photo- evoked memories in dementia patients, and it stood out to me because it tested patients with other types of dementia besides the most common type, Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD), such as behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (Bv-FTD). Additionally, unlike many of the other articles I read, this study analyzed the long-term memories of dementia patients as well as providing a comparison of music-evoked memories with other sources of memory such as photos. In this particular study, a total of twenty-two participants (7 with AD, 6 with Bv-FTD, and 9 healthy elderly people) reported memories after listening to two famous songs and looking at two photos of well-known historical events. The results show that memories increased over time in patients with AD and Bv-FTD due to both types of stimuli (music and photos), although songs evoked more positive memories than photos across all participants groups. These results varied based on the specific music and photo stimuli that were shown; songs and photos that were more familiar to the patient resulted in a higher frequency of memories. In addition, these memories remained relatively stable in topic over a 6-month period (Baird et al., 2020).

After reading this article, I immediately connected it back to my personal experiences as a volunteer with Music for Dementia. Whenever I would choose a piece to perform for the residents, I tried to pick songs that most people there would be familiar with. I found it interesting that some songs I usually perform are the same ones the experimenters used in the study, including ‘Over the Rainbow’ by Judy Garland and ‘In the Mood’ by Glenn Miller & Joe Loss. These findings make sense, given that residents would likely be more excited after hearing a piece they are familiar with so that they could sing along and engage with the music. Additionally, I never considered that my time as a volunteer would improve the long-term memory of dementia patients as well as improve their mood. With this in mind, I can apply this information to my future volunteer work, being careful to choose songs that residents will be familiar with and work to engage the residents in any piece that I play. In future studies, I think that it would be interesting to test the outcome of personally selected photo and music stimuli in people with different types of dementia. But for now, I am eager to share my findings with other Music for Dementia volunteers and use our talents to create an impactful music experience for the residents in order to bring joy and positive memories into their lives.

Works Cited

Baird, A.D., Gelding, R.W., Brancatisano, O., & Thompson, W.F. (2020). A Preliminary Exploration of the Stability of Music- and Photo-Evoked Autobiographical Memories in People with Alzheimer’s and Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia. Music & Science, 3.

Chu, H., Yang, C. Y., Lin, Y., Ou, K. L., Lee, T. Y., O'Brien, A. P., & Chou, K. R. (2014). The impact of group music therapy on depression and cognition in elderly persons with dementia: a randomized controlled study. Biological research for nursing, 16(2), 209–217.

Pedersen, S., Andersen, P. N., Lugo, R. G., Andreassen, M., & Sütterlin, S. (2017). Effects of Music on Agitation in Dementia: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 742.

Sung, H. C., Chang, A. M., & Lee, W. L. (2010). A preferred music listening intervention to reduce anxiety in older adults with dementia in nursing homes. Journal of clinical nursing, 19(7-8), 1056–1064.

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