Music & Memory: A Secret Weapon Against Dementia

The power our brains hold has always been fascinating to me. I have always been a particularly curious person and since I began working at English Rose Suites and b home Home Care, my brain has gone into overdrive wondering “why?” Why Alzheimer’s disease? Why dementia? What is the reason these diseases happen? Are we able to pinpoint who will eventually lose their memories by looking at characteristics going back to our youth? I’m no scientist, so I’ll leave that to the professionals. But one thing that always makes me giddy, and curious why, is when my memory brings up a long-lost scene from my past, especially when it evokes huge emotions that can linger for days.

One of my favorite scents in the entire world is Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew perfume that my Papa used to buy for my Nana. Every time I pass by a woman wearing it, or open the cap on the bottle (that I keep around for sentimental reasons), it takes me back to their old Wisconsin lake home. I can see every detail of the house perfectly. Sitting in the front room next to the Dutch door playing cards with my Nana, watching my Papa tinker in the basement with his tools, swinging in the hammock with my Uncle John singing ridiculous songs we made up (I’ll spare you from the lyrics). All of these memories are from under the age of four or five.

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Look familiar to anyone?

Same goes for music. When I hear “You’ll Be In My Heart” by Phil Collins, from the movie Tarzan, I am transported back to when my niece was a baby and rocking her to sleep; I immediately start crying  (seriously, every single time) wondering where all the time has gone and am overwhelmed by my love for her. Or more recently, Kesha’s “Timber,” and I begin laughing thinking of her little six year old dance moves while belting out the catchy tune.

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The day my niece was born, the first time I held her. 

Our brains are amazing and the power sound has over it is fascinating, at least to me. In last week’s blog, I shared a clip from the movie Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. I decided I wanted to do a little of my own research and try to present it in an interesting way. I’ll try not to bore you to sleep. But before I go into all of that, I want to share one of my favorite parts from Alive Inside to get the ball rolling on what I’ll be talking about.

 

A study in 2009 (I know, not a very good start if I’m trying to keep you awake) discovered that the medial prefrontal cortex region – right behind the forehead – is activated by music, which is one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy in people with Alzheimer’s disease. That is why, like in the clip above from Alive Inside, people with Alzheimer’s disease may suddenly go from disengaged, unable to answer questions about their past –  to recalling where they were, what they were doing, who they were with and what happened while that song was playing. (I know I’m a bit of a nerd…but how cool is that?!)   This is most true with music that evokes strong emotions. This music is our soundtrack that triggers a mental movie. While music is not a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, it is a wonderful therapy tool that increases quality of life exponentially.

The University of Newcastle in Australia was the first study of its kind to find that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity. I found it amazing that music actually activates almost all areas of the brain (check out the image below).

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Music lighting up the entire brain.

The Power of Music by Elena Mannes, takes a look at how music could play a role in health care. Studies have suggested that we may get to a day when music can help patients heal from various things such as a stroke. Because music stimulates so many parts of the brain, it may be used as therapy to regain abilities.  Mannes says, “A stroke patient who has lost verbal function – those verbal functions may be stimulated by music.” Though it will not cure, it certainly benefits or stalls symptoms of Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

Melodic intonation therapy uses music to coax portions of the brain into taking over for those that are damaged. In some cases, resulting in the ability to speak again. Just as the “right” genre of music is known to subdue and make unwanted Parkinson’s movements disappear! This is because it was discovered that music and motor control share specific neural circuits. That’s pretty neat, if you ask me.

I read a pretty cool statement by a violinist named Daniel Bernard Roumain. He thinks that one reason music is so powerful is because music actually penetrates our bodies. “You know when someone says that a piece of music ‘touched me’ or ‘moved me,’ it’s very literal. The sound of my voice enters your ear canal and it’s moving your eardrum. That’s a very intimate act. I am very literally touching you, and when you speak to me, you are literally touching me. And then we extend that principle to the sound of a violin.” Or any type of music. If you think back to the earlier brain scan, music touches every area of our bodies. That’s crazy stuff right there! Then doesn’t it make sense how these songs, loved ones voices and other noises can trigger all sorts of emotions and memories in us? I mean, common, that’s even cool if you’re not a nerd like me, right?! Which also makes perfect sense that music can also evoke the positive, calming effects that are useful in therapies and health care situations.

Basically, music is a wonderful therapy for human beings. Why not utilize this as much as possible? Especially in our loved ones with dementia, who may have lost or are losing their ability to understand or respond to language. Music has been proven, even if only temporary, to move them emotionally and bring back their cognitive focus and memories, bringing them back to a time when life held so much joy and promise. In my opinion, music is a gift in our lives we should never forget.

 

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Blog post written by Lizzie Regnier, Administrative Assistant