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Start the Year Out on the Right Note — Music Therapy and Dementias

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne?”

Most of us started out the year with those words, and many of us without thinking about their meaning — or perhaps knowing it, thanks to the Scots used by the original lyricist, poet Robert Burns. Loosely translated, ‘auld lang syne’ means ‘and old times since/past’ — something that, if you have an elderly loved one with dementia in your household or family, is often on your mind. Should old acquaintances and times long gone be forgotten? Of course not!

Throughout our lives, music serves as a source of both comfort and energy, calm and stimulation. Even before we’re born, we can hear and respond to music, and exposing the developing brain to it has been proven to improve brain function in children.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, a well-known and well-regarded neurologist and psychologist who has published extensively on both the brain and music, has been quoted as saying, “I regard music therapy as a tool of great power in many neurological disorders — Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — because of its unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged.” Even those of us who aren’t at the mercy of dysfunctional brains and overwhelming emotions–like many dementia patients are–recognize that music has a genuine power and ability to affect the way we feel.

While it cannot slow or stop damage wrought on the brain by dementia or Alzheimer’s, music can also improve the quality of life for those living with the diseases–as well as their family, friends, and caregivers. Music has the ability to lift moods and ease stress, and thus can have a palliative effect not only on a dementia patient, but also their emotionally-strained loved ones. Not only can it provide some emotional relief, but CNN reports that at least one study has shown that Alzheimer’s patients “consumed 20 percent more calories when music was played during lunchtime,” which is nothing to scoff at when put in the context of Alzheimer’s usual effect of decreasing appetite and leading to drastic (and unhealthy) weight loss.

Music can also be an easy way to “time-travel.” A general rule of thumb, when it comes to dementia patients, is that the first memories in are also the last ones out. It’s a lot easier to find music from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s than it is to recreate scenes from those decades, so playing old music can help stimulate a dementia patient’s fading memory.

The bottom line is, there’s definite potential for music to do good when it comes to Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, and similar diseases. Though it may not be able to reverse, slow, or cure brain disorders, the benefits far outweigh the only real negative–the threat of getting a song stuck in one’s head for longer than necessary!


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