How Music Helps People with Alzheimer's and Dementia

You eat salads, you quit smoking - you even exercise when you don’t feel like it. You and your spouse are likely to live into your 90s. Fast forward.

Congratulations, you’re 90! You get to see your adult children, grandkids, even great-grandkids, and you savor the sunrises. Coupled with the joys of aging are the concerns of aging, most notably the question of whether you or a loved one might develop dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly half of adults aged 90 and over develop dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. Other forms include vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, lewy-body dementia, and Huntington’s disease, among others.

Tragically, for some adults with dementia, many days start and end with powerful psychotropic drugs. The treatment is not aimed at curing the disease but at making patients more “manageable”. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on these drugs each year and provide limited relief and often come with significant side effects.

Advertisements for drugs treating whatever ails you seem to be everywhere. A promising treatment intervention that you won’t ever see advertised? Music.

Ann from Michigan has severe dementia and is unable to identify people after only seconds. She is easily confused, change scares her, and her speech is severely limited. Rather than a pharmacological solution, her treatment is music. As a younger woman, she loved Elvis, Doris Day, Dean Martin, and any other music from this genre. Using a device called the GrandPad, she presses a large button on the handheld screen. The very first time she tried the GrandPad, a Doris Day song started to play, and Ann—who hardly speaks— sang the entire song. When she finished the song, she gasped and covered her mouth in disbelief as she recognized that, for the first time in a long time, she remembered something. Dr. Kerry Burnight, GrandPad’s chief gerontologist, explains “emotionally salient memories are stored in a different part of the brain. Music can stimulate those neural pathways, giving our patients joy and connection despite advanced dementia”. Singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel is a strong advocate of the use of music. Gabriel says that “we as a species have long had an intuitive understanding that music has physical benefits.”

A German scientist, Jorn-Henrik Jacobsen, published powerful research on music and memory in the prestigious Brain: Journal of Neurology (August, 2015). The work documents that musical memories are maintained in Alzheimer’s disease because of where in the brain musical memories are stored.

If you are interested in using music with a loved one with dementia, there are two keys: First, you must use the right music. The music needs to have positive emotional meaning to the older adult. That is, there is no set playlist that will work for all seniors. Second, the right music must be easy to access. Until now, seniors have had to navigate roadblocks such as small font, multiple steps, passwords, wi-fi, and wires. GrandPad is designed by and for seniors to provide over 30 million songs with a touch of a button. With good music, age 90 is looking better all the time.