Study: Could Music Help Treat Dementia?

How many times have you gotten a favorite song stuck in your head? Apparently, its positive effects can keep going even in people with Alzheimer’s.

A recent study shows that music therapy could provide a cure (or at least an enjoyable treatment) for dementia patients. The study was published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease in April.

So why music?

The University of Utah Health states that music activates a specific part of the brain untouched by Alzheimer’s. While other memory areas get affected early on in the disease, this “salience network” keeps going.

Interested, the researchers wanted to test how music might influence anxiety in these patients. To do so, patients needed to choose meaningful songs that could more easily influence mood.

Then, researchers used an MRI to identify regions of the brain affected by the music. They played several clips of the patients’ selected music in various orders.

Each time, they found that the patients showed increased brain activity. In fact, various regions of the brain started communicating with each other.

This finding proves promising for the many families and patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

So could music therapy have a curing effect?

The researchers believe it’s not likely. Still, the study was small—including only 17 patients—and therefore could not address all the effects music might have.

Researchers do believe, however, that music will improve patients’ moods. It may also ease the burden a bit on caregivers.

Music Affects Mood

Indeed, many people listen to music to relieve stress or set a mood. Teachers and parents use music to help lull their children to sleep, while athletes use it to stay focused and motivated.

Counselors have even recommended it to alleviate problems or reduce stress in their counselees’ lives. Whatever the use, the general consensus is that music does have a calming effect.

The question is whether that idea has any scientific ground. Research suggests it does.

The Stress Test

In one small study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers set out to find whether music had a significant effect on people’s stress.

First, researchers divided 60 female participants into 3 different groups. One group listened to music prior to a standard stress test, and a second group listened to the sound of waves. A third group simply rested without listening to any sound.

Then, all 3 groups underwent a stress test. The groups didn’t differ significantly in heart rate or psychological stress.

However, they did differ in the amount of cortisol their bodies created in response to stress. Of all the groups, those who had listened to music were able to return to normal levels the fastest.

The Lullaby Study

In addition, researchers have conducted a similar test on 272 premature babies. The babies were all over 32 weeks gestation.

Researchers tested 3 sounds: a lullaby sung by the parents, an ocean disc that mimicked the sounds of the womb, and a gato box that mimicked the sound of a heartbeat.

Researchers found that all 3 sounds lowered the babies’ heart rates. Each one did affect the baby differently, though, such as the ocean disc lulling the baby to sleep.

Interestingly, these sounds also reduced stress in the parents.

The study’s lead author Joanne Loewy said that music can and does help patients improve. According to her, something about music just “excites and activates the body,” in effect bringing it to life.

This study was published in the journal Pediatrics in 2013.

What’s Next?

It’s true that scientists have much more research to go in testing music on Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

However, the nearly 6 million Americans dealing with Alzheimer’s make such research worth the effort. In addition, 1 out of 3 seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or some related form of dementia (stats from the Alzheimer’s Association).

In the end, music may not cure dementia. But thousands of patients could benefit from its calming therapy.