Chief Science Correspondent
It was almost exactly four years ago that my grandmother, reaching the final stages of Alzheimer's Disease, had to be admitted into a nursing home. It was heartbreaking to see the woman whom I had loved and admired my whole life become a shell of the person she had once been. Her eyes, once full of life, now appear lost and confused. Her voice, once a vehicle for singing and laughter, has been muted.
AD is a cruel disease. It attacked my grandmother from within, slowly taking away bits of herself away over more than a decade. Yet some doctors believe that AD patients may still retain bits and pieces of their personalities even at the most severe stages; the mind has simply lost the ability to access the patient's own thoughts. On several occasions over the past several years, my grandmother has started to try to speak to us, only to forget what she was saying halfway through her sentence.
At one point, a young singer and musician would regularly come to visit my grandmother at the nursing home. She sang songs that we knew my grandmother had once enjoyed, particularly country and religious songs. Even though my grandmother was generally unresponsive by this point, something in her seemed to change in the presence of this woman's music. Although my grandmother still did not speak, I saw a flash of life spark in her eyes. Just for a moment, she almost seemed like herself again.
In his 2014 documentary Alive Inside, Michael Rossato-Bennett explores the concept of music therapy in dementia patients. In the film, Rossato-Bennett records patients listening to their old favorite songs on an iPod shuffle. Previously unresponsive for years, the patients begin to respond to the music, often
rocking, dancing or singing. After removing the headphones, the nurses asked questions to the patients, finding that they are more receptive to answering questions with complex answers that had previously appeared impossible.
A patient named Henry previously held his head low to his chest, muttering and struggling to answer yes or no questions. But after listening so some of his old favorite songs, the man begins to talk about Cab Calloway, and starts to sing "I'll be Home for Christmas." He goes on to talk about the beauty of music as a gift from the Lord, his face lighting up.
"Music connects people with who they are, who they have been, who they are and their lives," Rossato-Bennett says in the trailer.
Alive Inside premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and was released in theatres last Friday.* The full-length documentary does not yet appear to be available online, but you can watch a clip from the film here.
The idea that music can be beneficial to dementia patients is not a new one. A 1991 study found
that AD patients were able to recall the lyrics to familiar songs more easily than familiar words, and in many cases were able to actually learn new songs. A 2004 case study reported similar results
A 1999 study found that short-term music therapy could have long-term effects on the levels of melatonin in AD patients, a sleep and relaxation-aid hormone that generally decreases production with age. This may explain the 2006 study that found music therapy eased aggression and agitation in AD patients.
Yet this doesn't quite explain the sudden mental and physical alertness previously described. In fact, melatonin has been linked to memory loss, not memory restoration.
Despite the practical benefits, biologists were not entirely certain what physically causes the previous reports of stimulation and memory restoration in these AD patients that were reported in the 1991 and 2004 studies. Then, a 2008 study found that music stimulates auditory receptors in the brain, building a stronger connections that promote long-term neuron creation and repair.
Music has excellent potential as a therapy tool for dementia patients because it is cheap (The iPod shuffles used in Alive Inside are only $46 each, and a CD player or radio costs even less), easy to administer and non-invasive. If you happen to be blessed with a musical talent, I urge you to share your gift with the elderly. Drawing from both my personal experience, reports from peer-reviewed literature, and the case studies featured in Alive Inside, I assure you that your music will make a difference.
*Note: Alive Inside is playing in theatres in Washington, D.C. (July 25), Philadelphia (August 1), and Harrisburg (August 8). Click here for a complete listing.