How Music Plays Through the Fog of Dementia

The songs of your youth hold a special place in your heart and your brain, and they can help you cope with more than one symptom of Alzheimer's disease.

From big bands to the Beatles and beyond, the songs you loved as a teenagerÑyou know, the ones that neither your parents nor your kids could fully appreciate may hold a key to getting through to people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other causes of dementia.

That’s because the part of the brain that holds music memory tends to survive relatively unscathed when AD starts its insidious theft of other memories and thinking skills. More specifically, it’s the music you listened to between, roughly, the ages of 12 and 23 that really seems to take hold in the brain, explains Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a leader in the field of AD research.

It’s the music you enjoyed with friends, fell in love to, listened to in the car when you first started drivingÑthe soundtrack of your life between childhood and adulthood. “There are large amounts of emotional memory that come with that music,” Dr. Tanzi says.

Untouched by AD

From pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s to late-stage AD, music memory isn’t affected to the same degree as other parts of memory. “You may have late-stage patients who may not be able to construct a sentence, yet they can remember lyrics and melodies,” Dr. Tanzi says.

This occurs because music memory is stored in the middle of the brain, apart from the regions of the brain most responsible for short-term and long-term memory. AD tends to follow a predictable path, first injuring short-term memory and then working its way to where long-term memory is stored.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Emotional experiences, both happy and upsetting, tend to hardwire our memories associated with those events. That’s why listening to music from emotionally significant times in our lives is able to conjure up vivid memories.
  • Playing a musical instrument affects the brain in several ways, such as boosting the ability to learn and process new information and improving verbal memory and spatial reasoning. It also may help increase resilience to age-related changes in brain health.
  • Playing and listening to new types of music may help increase neural connections in the brain.
  • Research has shown that playing or listening to music may help improve sleep, increase pain tolerance, reduce anxiety, and boost mental alertness.

Dr. Tanzi explains that the music memory part of the brain is spared by AD’s destructive journey. Fortunately, the music memory section of the brain is tied into the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with emotion, memory, and survival instincts. Music memory is also connected to the hippocampus, a region of the brain also associated with emotion and memory. In simple terms, listening to the music you have strong emotional connections to will trigger an emotional response in the brain, which then “turns on” the memory centers of the brain, Dr. Tanzi says.

Dr. Tanzi helped develop a streaming music application for computer or smartphone that provides music from those important years in a person’s life just by entering the individual’s birthday. It’s called SPARK Memories Radio, and he has received some rewarding correspondence from families who use the app.

He recently heard from someone whose father has late-stage dementia and hadn’t spoken more than a few words for weeks. SPARK then played “Fever,” sung by Peggy Lee, and he was soon regaling his kids about taking his date to prom in an old red pickup truck.

Effects of Music

In addition to triggering memories of high school dances, college road trips, and long hours spent by the record player or jukebox, the music of our youth can also work on our emotions. This is particularly true among people with AD, as mood changes often accompany the onset of the disease.

“Music can soothe you,” Dr. Tanzi says. “In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, there’s often a lot of agitation. It turns out, if you play music they loved as teenagers, that this does the job of relaxing them pretty well.” Music can sometimes be as effective as medication in calming patients with dementia.

Our favorite songs can induce the production of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is a brain chemical that plays a key role in family and social bonding. As a youth, music also triggers the release of dopamine, a “feel good” brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward, as well as memory, attention and even body movement. As a kid, excitedly hearing a new song by your favorite artist may have caused a release of dopamine that helped form an emotional attachment to the song, which in turn locked it into your music memory. Hearing that song 40, 50 or 60 years later can wake up all kinds of other memories.

Try This at Home

Dr. Tanzi suggests trying some music memory therapy at home, whether it’s through the SPARK Memories Radio app or by playing favorite songs for anyone who may be struggling with dementia. He says that it doesn’t even matter whether the song was a favorite. Any songs from a particular era can trigger positive effects.

He also notes that playing a musical instrument or singingÑthere are Alzheimer’s disease choirs around the countryÑor painting or being creative in other ways can often cut through the fog of dementia, even for short bursts of time. You may need to experiment a little with a loved one to see what songs or activities get a reaction. But the effort may be worth it for everyone involved.

“Anything that gets neural activity going in some part of the brain will spread out,” Dr. Tanzi says, “and wake up the rest of the brain.

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