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  • Dylan House

How music can play a role in treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Source: Alzheimer’s Association: what is the difference?

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, believed to be caused by unusual clumps of proteins in and around the brain cells. It is a progressive brain disease that is influenced by various genes, alongside environmental and lifestyle factors, rather than solely genetics. In AD, the basic functions of the brain slowly deteriorate, including cognitive ability, memory and the ability to carry out simple tasks. Despite these common symptoms, variations occur from person to person, and to accurately diagnose AD a range of tests (from behavioural changes to memory impairment tests) are required. This is necessary to rule out other diseases. AD is a severe brain disorder that currently has no cure, but few medicines can be prescribed to alleviate symptoms, specifically in early-onset AD (when AD develops before the age of 60). There are many risk factors for AD: notably, age, family history and genetics, cardiovascular disease and head injuries. Despite this, there is no known singular reason for AD.

Treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (and is there any cure)?

There is a range of drugs and different medicinal therapies for AD, however there is currently no cure, and prescriptions are only used to control cognitive and behavioral symptoms and development in early onset to mild AD. One common form of medicine for AD is acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors, which helps nerve cells communicate with one another. Other than this (and a few other less common medications) a range of therapies can be used to aid patients with AD: cognitive stimulation therapy; reminiscence and life story work, and cognitive rehabilitation, to name a few. Musical therapy is an example of cognitive stimulation therapy, an innovative therapy that has the chance to reduce the risk of developing and progressing AD.

How does music influences one's memory?

Andrew Budson, chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology, once stated “music can open forgotten doors to your memory.” This statement has become unanimously accepted by brain researchers; music is known to trigger memories and provoke emotions from these prior experiences. Perhaps, this singular phenomenon could be because music is the only – known – activity to engage all regions of the brain, but the trait of music to trigger past experiences makes a very useful form of medicine: musical therapy, which can be used to aid mental illnesses, learning disabilities, chronic pain, cancer and more. 

How does music help patients with Alzheimer's?

One of musical therapies' most influential impacts is the treatment for patients with AD, in which patients can recall songs, which consequently reduces agitation. An opportunistic alternative to sedatives and antipsychotics in many cases, which could also assist caregivers - “anxiety and agitation is one of the really challenging things for caregivers” says Russo, a neuroscience researcher. Music, therefore, could make a positive change in not only the emotional and mental wellbeing of AD patients, but also assist caregivers, and potentially allow patients with early-onset AD to stay at home longer and outside of care – if that’s what the patient and their family prefer. Additionally, music can be a shared experience in which patients and loved ones can bond over music they both enjoy and potentially spark conversations on the memories triggered by specific songs. The reason why patients with AD can remember these songs is because music is a form of implicit memory, meaning it is hardwired into the brain. This can also mean for AD patients that music can stimulate parts of the brain that other activities cannot, which is also beneficial.

Can playing music help?

Through various research projects, studies have shown that playing musical instruments can have a positive impact on one's cognitive function, particularly improving memory. Playing a musical instrument has been associated with a significantly decreased risk of developing AD. This phenomenon occurs because playing a musical instrument involves active engagement of numerous cognitive functions, such as the sensory and motor systems. Despite sufficient evidence showing that playing music can decrease the risk of AD development and progression, it is unclear to neuroscientists whether these neuroprotective benefits are limited to life-long musicians or apply to musicians who began their training much later in life (although some clinical trials suggest – but do not prove – it is never too late for the brain to benefit from the extraordinary powers of music).

Do other forms of art help, or is it only music?

Put simply, art can help patients with AD, however its effectiveness is limited compared to music. Art therapy can reduce anxiety and agitation in patients, which, like music therapy, can assist caregivers, whilst also calming patients down and helping them feel more at ease. Moreover, art can be a group activity, helping lonely patients stay connected with others and the world around them, whilst also providing an excellent form for self-expression and communication. Despite this, music therapy has more hopeful prospects, as it is simpler to put into practice: potentially connecting countless people with a simple song. Moreover, music has an incomparable effect on the brain, so whilst still useful, it is likely music therapy will be more impactful than art therapy. Proving music therapies' inexorable prowess: “Even in the late stages of AD, a person may be able to tap a beat or sing lyrics to a song from childhood.” - Alzheimer’s Association.


To conclude, musical therapy could potentially change the way AD is treated. Music alone can heavily reduce the risk of developing AD, whilst music therapy can reduce the progress of the disease. Additionally, music therapy can reduce agitation among patients, making it easier for them to receive care and treatment, whilst also helping them remain calm and at ease in potentially new environments. Whilst it isn’t a cure, music therapy does provide a positive new direction to the treatment of AD, where patients can be cared for without heavy treatments, such as antipsychotics, which can have severe side effects (potentially even death in older patients with AD).



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