Posted by Laura Sheath

The Effects of Music Therapy on People Living with Dementia

You might say that music is magic. The universal nature of the ability to enjoy music provides an accessible tool that can enhance the quality of life of people living with dementia.

There are care homes in the UK that provide music therapy for their residents with dementia but data collected from ILCUK suggest that while more than 80% of people in care homes have dementia or very significant memory problems, only 5% have access to art and music.

Lots of people living with dementia live at home, where access to music therapy may be limited, however, there are ways to enjoy the benefits of music with simple methods listed within this blog.

a woman with dementia enjoys music with her grandchild
Music connects people

Does music positively impact emotion, behaviour and cognition?

Yes. Research has shown that blood flows more easily when music is played. It can also reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure decrease cortisol (stress hormone) levels and increase serotonin and endorphin levels in the blood.

The NHS says, “Music and memory have a powerful connector. Music lights up emotional memories – everyone remembers songs from their past – the first kiss, the song at a wedding, seeing their parents dance and we often use music to remember people at funerals.”

What is dementia?

Dementia is a major neurocognitive disorder that is diagnosed when one or more cognitive domains, such as complex attention, executive ability, learning and memory, language, praxis, and social cognition, are impaired.

It should be noted that dementia is not a disease, but rather a syndrome that can present in different forms such as:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cerebrovascular disease
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Mixed Alzheimer’s disease
  • Vascular dementia

How does dementia affect people?

Dementia can range in severity, from the mildest stage of its beginning effects on an individual’s cognition to a complete inability to function independently with even the most basic activities of living.

According to Alzheimer's Research UK:

  • Someone in the world develops dementia every 3 seconds.
  • There are over 55 million people worldwide living with dementia in 2020.
  • This number will almost double every 20 years, reaching 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050.

How is dementia treated?

There is no cure for dementia.

The standard pharmacological treatment for dementia is cholinesterase inhibitors, which can delay the deterioration of cognitive function.

However, cholinesterase inhibitors have limited efficacy with small improvements in symptoms related to non-cognitive outcomes.

Music therapy is used as an alternative or adjunct treatment in some cases of dementia.

Can music help with dementia?

Music therapy, in daily clinical use with patients with dementia, has had significant positive impacts on emotion, behaviour, and cognition.

The International Longevity Centre has recently launched a Commission into Music and Dementia highlighting many of the key aspects of the link and the potential to exploit it for the benefit of people with dementia, their families and carers.

Can a person with dementia still enjoy music?

The ability to respond to music is preserved in individuals with dementia even when they are no longer able to communicate verbally.

If you have ever had the experience of being in a public space hearing a song that you haven’t heard in a while, and immediately being transported back to an event or experience highly connected to strong memories and emotions, you may understand just how powerful our responses to music can be.

older man living with dementia enjoys music and feels calmer as he thinks of the past
Some songs take you back

Benefits of music for dementia patients

Listening to music provides a ready resource for enjoyment and entertainment, triggering memories and stimulating the brain.

There is evidence that listening to music lights up the brain in many places, reaching the parts that others can’t.

Music therapy can enhance cerebral plasticity – the ability to modify the way the brain is structured.

Music has also been shown to reduce apathy and alleviate anxiety and depression in people with dementia.

Family members or carers who are in the company of people with dementia can also benefit from the positive effects of music. Listening to music can be a shared experience that connects people.

Music-based interventions for people with dementia

The therapeutic benefits of music can be enjoyed in various settings and through different experiences.

These might include:

  • community-based music groups
  • listening to the radio or recorded music
  • live music in care homes
  • music therapy
  • personalised dementia playlists
  • playing an instrument

Live-in carers or home care professionals who specialise in dementia care could also help a person with dementia experience enjoyment from music.

Dementia-friendly music playlists and radio station

We’ve included playlists, however, we’ve also included links to high-frequency music.

Preliminary studies suggest that listening to 40Hz Gamma Binaural Beats (two tones with slightly different frequencies at the same time) can help alleviate anxiety and can also increase different brain functions that control thinking and feeling.

Create a dementia playlist yourself

Playlist for Life, a UK charity that improves the lives of people living with dementia through meaningful music, encourages people to create playlists for either themselves or someone they love who is living with dementia.

Their vision is simple: we want everyone with dementia to have a unique, personalised playlist and everyone who loves or cares for them to know how to use it.

You can create your own dementia playlist for free here.

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