Humans are innately musical creatures. Our first sensory system to come alive is our hearing, engaging at just 16 weeks after conception. Throughout pregnancy parents are encouraged to talk to their unborn child and play music to it, and you only have to look at how a tiny baby responds to a lullaby to see that music affects us deeply. So it should come as little surprise that music is now acknowledged as having positive outcomes for people suffering from dementia.
Dementia has many impacts on cognitive functioning, from mood and personality changes to difficulty in carrying out tasks, but perhaps the most common effect is on memory. The erosion of short-term memory, leading to forgetfulness, is one of the primary indicators of dementia. As the condition progresses both long and short term memory can be affected, resulting in a loss of personality and inability to engage with people.
Recent studies have shown that playing music to people suffering with dementia can reignite memories, especially when the music is familiar to them. The effect could be as small as a smile and a look of engagement or as huge as the person recalling lyrics and singing along to the music. In some cases patients who are previously unable to answer questions become animated and coherent after listening to music.
The reasons behind this are not fully understood, but are believed to be partially related to the fact that some areas of the brain such as the hippocampus, which stores long-term memories, are less affected by dementia.
Although even unfamiliar music has been shown to be beneficial, the effects are more noticeable when the songs are important to the person. Professionals in the field stress that it’s important to understand the person’s background and preferences so that the music can be selected to have the most impact.
The positive effects of music don’t stop at just listening. By encouraging singing and the use of simple musical instruments, such as drums, other areas of the brain are stimulated and this can help in the retention of motor skills, which are often adversely affected as dementia progresses.
Several studies, as well as much anecdotal evidence, show that music therapy also decreases stress, depression and the incidence of hallucinations and delusions among sufferers of dementia.
Many care homes now incorporate musical therapy and activities into their care packages, as the benefits of music are becoming more widely accepted. By allowing sufferers to reconnect with old memories their well-being is improved, and their loved ones can get a chance to see them as they once were.
This article was supplied by Hallmark Care Homes, who run a variety of care homes in Essex, Wales and across the UK.