The team at CareYaya is constantly scouring the latest in evidence-based medical research to improve the experience of aging, helping our clients maintain their cognitive and physical wellness as long as possible through modifiable lifestyle factors. We present our findings to you in a simplified and easy-to-understand manner, with ample links to the underlying clinical evidence for those who like to nerd out!

Have you been bombarded with ads for "brain fitness" apps like Lumosity for your iPhone or pricey "supplements" like Prevagen that you see on TV, which claim to improve memory in older adults through over-the-counter pills? Well, don't fall for the marketing hype - they're just trying to make you part ways with your hard-earned dollars. There's a free, simple and easy to implement methodology that's available to everyone, that can greatly aid in memory recall and improve the cognitive ability of people of all ages, including the elderly with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Enter: Music!

Some music inspires you to move your feet, some inspires you to get out there and change the world. Music moves people in special ways.

If you're especially into a piece of music, your brain does something called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which feels to you like a tingling in your brain or scalp. It's nature's own little "buzz", a natural reward, that is described by some as a "head orgasm". Some even think that it explains why people go to church, for example, "feeling the Lord move through you", but that's another article for another time.

Turns out that ASMR is pretty special. According to a recently published study in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease (catchy name!), the part of your brain responsible for ASMR doesn't get lost to Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's tends to put people into layers of confusion, and the study confirms that music can sometimes actually lift people out of the Alzheimer's haze and bring them back to (at least a semblance of) normality... if only for a short while. ASMR is powerful stuff!

Introducing: Music Therapy!

Who would've thought that listening to music could be dubbed as "therapy"? As they age, millions of elderly Americans are losing their memories, often forgetting their surroundings or familiar faces. Despite the best efforts of their loved ones, their lives often lack meaning, spontaneity, choice, and reliable social interaction.

But, there's hope! Through the gift of music, we can help our elderly find renewed meaning and connection in their lives. Our approach is simple and effective: set up personalized music playlists for those in care. These music favorites – specifically the beloved songs from a person’s formative years – tap deep memories not lost to dementia and can bring listeners back to life, enabling them to feel like themselves again, to converse, socialize, and stay present.

Meet Henry, who suffered from dementia for a decade and barely said a word to anyone–until music & memory was introduced at his nursing home.

The concept of music therapy started with the understanding that music is deeply rooted in our conscious and unconscious brains. As powerful as that idea is, it becomes even more important if the functioning of the brain is deteriorating, as it occurs in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and other types of cognitive loss. But music can awaken the brain and with it, the rich trove of memories that are associated with familiar songs or beloved pieces.

Benefits of Music Therapy

Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer's disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease. According to a study published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease, music activates the brain, awakening regions including the salience, visual, executive, and the cerebellar networks and causing them to communicate. The research team concluded that personally meaningful music might aid attention, reward, and motivation and manage Alzheimer's symptoms.

For example, music can:

  • Relieve stress
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Reduce agitation
  • Evoke powerful emotions that can stimulate memories
  • Bring about emotional and physical connection and positive interactions
  • Help with management of pain and discomfort without medication
  • Musical aptitude and appreciation linger even as other abilities fade

The emotional content within music can trigger powerful emotional memories, even unconscious memories. Also, musical knowledge is stored as procedural memory, which is associated with routines and repetitive activities. Procedural memory tends to remain largely intact during Alzheimer's.

Music can also benefit caregivers by reducing anxiety and distress, lightening the mood, and providing a way to connect with loved ones who have Alzheimer's disease — especially those who have difficulty communicating.

Benefits of Active Participation in Music

Active participation in musical activities also has many benefits. Singing is proven to release oxytocin, which leads to reduced anxiety and stress. In addition to the pleasure of singing, there are physical benefits. Singing increases the lung capacity and improves immunity. Increased oxygenation of the blood leads to feeling more alert. Singing along with favorite musicals on a video player is easy to do at home.

Group musical activities encourage personal expression and group bonding, as well as the pleasure in making music. Group music promotes relationships and trust. Persons with Alzheimer's can, for example, play simple percussion instruments as part of a group musical activity. Drum circles are fun and beneficial. They are a physical outlet and may improve motor function.

If they prefer, elderly persons can also take music lessons. These can help maintain pathways in the brain, particularly in the early stages of the disease. For those who previously played an instrument, music lessons help them reconnect with a familiar and pleasurable activity. Seniors between the ages of 60 – 85 with no prior musical experience have shown improved ability to process and retain information, even after only a few months of piano lessons!

How to Implement This in 15 Easy Minutes!

If you'd like to use music to help a loved one with music therapy, read on! No matter what form it takes, music therapy results in increased secretion levels of the "feel-good" brain chemicals in seniors with Alzheimer's.

We recommend creating a 20-30 song playlist from their youth and offering it for 30 minutes at a time as often as is needed or enjoyed. To ensure it’s highly personalized for greatest impact, try to find top songs from when they were 15-25 years old. We also suggest offering it proactively before medical appointments or social occasions.

  • Think about your loved one's preferences. What kind of music does your loved one enjoy? What music evokes memories of happy times in his or her life? Involve family and friends by asking them to suggest songs or make playlists.
  • Set the mood. To calm your loved one during mealtime or a morning hygiene routine, play music or sing a song that's soothing. When you'd like to boost your loved one's mood, use more upbeat or faster paced music.
  • Avoid overstimulation. When playing music, eliminate competing noises. Turn off the TV. Shut the door. Set the volume based on your loved one's hearing ability. Opt for music that isn't interrupted by commercials, which can cause confusion.
  • Encourage movement. Help your loved one to clap along or tap his or her feet to the beat. If possible, consider dancing with your loved one.
  • Sing along. Singing along to music together with your loved one can boost the mood and enhance your relationship. Some early studies also suggest musical memory functions differently than other types of memory, and singing can help stimulate unique memories.
  • Pay attention to your loved one's response. If your loved one seems to enjoy particular songs, play them often. If your loved one reacts negatively to a particular song or type of music, choose something else.

CareYaya Wishes You Happy Listening!

From our expert research team, here's further reading including a systematic overview of the medical literature behind music therapy and memory. Enjoy!