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Listening to music that evokes happy memories can change the tenor of lives debilitated by dementia. And with no new medical treatments since the approval of memantine in 2004, helping some of the 5-million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease feel better with music therapy sounds good to Joshua Grill, PhD, director of UCLA’s Katherine & Benjamin Kagan Alzeheimer’s Disease Treatment Development Program.
While no studies have been published, “anecdotal reports of what happens with patients who get [iPod and MP3] music therapy are pretty staggering,” Dr. Grill says. Nursing homes report that patients receiving music therapy are happier and more sociable. “Patients who haven’t slept through the night in a long time may now sleep through the night,” he notes.
While Alzheimer’s patients “may not be able to remember a list of words you gave them five or 10 minutes ago, they often can give you spectacular details of memories from their youth or young adulthood,” Dr. Grill notes. “Music may tap into old memories — positive experiences from your youth associated with particular music — even better than just trying to remember things.”
Research on stroke patients with damage to parts of the brain that control the production of language has found, oddly enough, that although they can’t speak, they can sing. “There’s an innate quality in music that activates the brain differently for Alzheimer’s patients — who are dealing with the significant challenge of a biological disease attacking the brain — and may enable the activation of networks that haven’t been activated in a long time,” Dr. Grill says.