For people with Alzheimer's, music brings sweet memories

Alzheimer’s Awareness Month is a reminder that research is still needed to find a cure. In the meantime, music can bring joy to people with Alzheimer’s. Learn how melody can help with memory.

  • Music made an amazing connection with a man who has dementia. 
  • Music can ease anxiety, confusion and disconnection in people with the disease.
  • Tips for bringing music into a loved one’s life who is struggling with memory loss.

[3 MIN READ]

In a scene from the moving documentary “Alive Inside,” a 94-year-old dementia patient named Henry is given an iPod loaded with music that’s tailored just for him. Before the music starts, Henry is unresponsive and disconnected.

Then the earphones are placed on his head.

Almost right away his eyes focus, his body straightens and his face lights up. Henry’s favorite tunes reach him so powerfully, he starts singing along with the music he loves: gospel and famous jazz stars from the past like Cab Calloway.

“When we gave him his music for the first time, he just woke up,” says Rossato-Bennett. “He rose out of his chair and started conducting. He went from dead to alive in front of my eyes.” 

Michael Rossato-Bennett, the film’s creator, noted Henry’s astonishing response. “When we gave him his music for the first time, he just woke up,” says Rossato-Bennett. “He rose out of his chair and started conducting. He went from dead to alive in front of my eyes. It was like he was reoccupying his own body, his own self!” 

Music and memory in dementia patients

According to the Alzheimer's Association, close to 6 million people in the U.S. are living with the disease. The condition leads to severe memory loss and impairs many other brain functions such as day-to-day decision-making, self-care and language use. As with Henry in the movie, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia may also cause anxiety, confusion and disconnection in many people.

Music can make a difference in all of these areas.

Studies have found that when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, a person can recognize music even as other mental abilities are affected. 

Studies have found that when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, a person can recognize music even as other mental abilities are affected. We humans are able to code, store and retrieve our musical memories. That’s why music therapy is proving so effective as an alternative treatment for reducing symptoms. Here are three of the ways music matters when it comes to memory.

  • Music changes moods and inspires movement. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America says that “music requires little to no mental processing, so singing does not require the cognitive function that is missing in most dementia patients.” As 94-year-old Henry showed, when used in the right way music can:

Cause a positive shift in mood | Reduce agitation | Rouse more positive interactions |

Assist with better thinking | Smooth motor movements

  • Music stirs the mind. People with Alzheimer’s are still that: people. They can still feel energized by their surroundings and the chance to express themselves. Singing stirs the left side of the brain, while listening to music stimulates the brain’s right side. This kind of engagement can exercise the mind more than usual. 
  • Music creates closeness. As Alzheimer’s gets to its later stages, patients may not be able to share emotions with their caregivers. But music may make a difference. As long as patients can move, they often want to dance. When loved ones and caregivers join in the dance, it can lead to hugs and gentle physical touch that helps the patient feel secure and brings back good memories.

Bring music to the life of an Alzheimer’s patient

In 1983, President Ronald Regan designated November as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. It’s a good time to learn about the symptoms of the disease. If you have a loved one who’s already been diagnosed, consider all the ways you can help. Music may be one of the most important tools. With that in mind, consider these tips for using melody to help with memory.

  • Hit the right note when it comes to music preference. Think about the kind of music your loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s disease enjoys. There are most likely tunes that bring back memories of happy times — family and friends may be able to help with that as well. Start a playlist from there.
  • See how you can be part of the Music & Memory Program. This nonprofit organization offers personalized music to seniors to help improve their quality of life. The program has provided resources to several residences in North America.
  • Spark joy with Spark Memories Radio. This streaming music app plays on internet-connected devices such as MP3 players, smartphones and tablets. It’s allows caregivers to design playlists for Alzheimer’s patients of different ages to improve mood and improve awareness at all stages of the disease.

In 1983, President Ronald Regan designated November as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. It’s a good time to learn about the symptoms of the disease.

Alzheimer’s Awareness Month reminds us all that there’s still research needed to find a cure. It also encourages care and concern for those with the disease. While music isn’t a foolproof treatment for symptoms of Alzheimer’s, it’s one way to help many patients enjoy life a little bit more. That should strike a chord of hope in us all.

Find a doctor

If you or a loved one are experiencing dementia-like symptoms, talk to a doctor. You can find a Providence neurologist using our provider directory. Or you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

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Related resources

Alive Inside

Alzheimer’s Association

Debunking 5 Myths About Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

Healthy lifestyle choices help prevent dementia

Music & Memory Program

Spark Memories Radio

Share your tips on coping with Alzheimer’s at #aging and how you want to help #ENDALZ with readers @psjh.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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