Dementia and Music: Remembering what is forgotten through lines of notes
As our age progresses, we gain an incredible amount of experience, knowledge, and stories in general, to pass on to our younger generations. Many of us are lucky enough to observe this from our parents and their parents, and luckily enough their parents as well. Sometimes we can feel like how our parents do like we have gone through a lot while talking to someone much younger than us. However, what happens as we age is that our capacity of remembering and expressing these stories ironically becomes more limited and limited every day. This can be observed solemnly due to age, which is often referred to as “age-associated memory impairment”, but it can be observed as cases of “dementia” as well. According to the American Psychological Association, dementia can be defined as “a generalized, pervasive deterioration of memory and at least one other cognitive function, such as language and an executive function, due to a variety of causes like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, alcoholism, brain tumor, etc.” What differentiates dementia from aging is that the loss of intellectual abilities is severe enough to interfere with an individual’s daily, social and occupational activities. It is located under the group “major neurocognitive disorders” in the DSM-5 and affects many people’s and their loved ones’ lives every single day.
In the later stages of dementia, the lack of ability to communicate verbally seems to be a big problem, which is one of the characteristics of dementia that separates it from other diseases that only directly affect memory, such as Alzheimer’s. Recent studies of the Northwestern Medicine and Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA) have shown that music plays a key role (Bonakdarpour 2022).
Music has been known to play a therapeutic role for centuries and has been used as a communication device from ancient times till today. In the research, the patients who were in the later stages of dementia could sing and dance along to the music tunes just like they did in their younger days from the musicals “Oklahoma” and “The Sound of Music” - which are from the 40s and 50s.
Patients were also able to connect more with their caregivers. Before the session, some of the patients did not communicate much with their partners/caregivers, but when the music started, they were able to sing, dance, and enjoy the tunes together. This exercise and founding have not only been beneficial for science and the patients who are living with the disease but the families who have to see their loved ones struggle every day whether it is with or without them being conscious of it. The changes accompanied by the sessions carried outside and generalized these behaviors to the patient's daily lives even if it is to a little extent.
But why does music hold such a huge power over these patients? The memories that are affected the most by dementia are called episodic memories, such as some type of knowledge, events, dates, etc. different than what we call the “procedural memory”, which are the task abilities and talents, and the “semantic memory” which is the factual knowledge (Clark 2015). As Bonakdarpour stated, the regions of the brain that are responsible for musical memory and processing, such as the cerebellum, are not always affected by Alzheimer’s or other sorts of dementia until the very later stages of the disease.
To conclude, the effect of music on our brains is an outstanding field of research. From the number of different regions responsible for different functions being stimulated only while playing an instrument to curing diseases, this is just an amazing thing that we as humankind share. We must respect music and art in general; not just because it has a healing characteristic but also because it humanizes us, and reminds us that we are all humans and we can all enjoy a good song at any age and in any health.
Clark, Camilla. "Music, memory and mechanisms in Alzheimer's disease." National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4511859/. Accessed 6 Sept. 2022.
"dementia." American Psychological Association, dictionary.apa.org/dementia. Accessed 6 Sept. 2022.
Devere, Ronald. "Music and Dementia: An Overview." Practical Neurology, June 2017, practicalneurology.com/articles/2017-june/music-and-dementia-an-overview. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.
Northwestern University. "Music helps patients with dementia connect with loved ones: Novel music intervention sparks emotional connection between patients and caregivers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 August 2022. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/08/220829143926.htm. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022