Music May Help Reduce Anxiety, Improve Brain Function in Dementia Patients

Now that we are all constantly connected through digital means, the uninterrupted barrage of noise can feel overwhelming. And if you’re feeling overstimulated by all the obtrusive ringing, rumbling, and yelling, you aren’t alone. Studies have found that community noise — whether out on the street or through the speakers of a cell phone — can be detrimental to your health. In fact, those adverse health effects include everything from learning deficits to heart disease. When community noise levels rise above 40 decibels, the incidence of cardiovascular problems rises, too.

But that’s not to say that all sound is harmful to your health. For those with dementia diseases, specially chosen melodies may help bring back important memories, reduce anxiety, and provide a connection to the world around them.

According to a study published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, listening to music that has a personal meaning may increase blood flow to the brain, particularly in the regions that control visual memory and language. University of Utah Health researchers studied the brain’s salience network — the area that attaches emotional meaning to experiences and gives you chills when you listen to a beautiful piece of music — because it’s actually part of the brain that is not affected by the spread of Alzheimer’s. They aimed to stimulate the salience network and alleviate anxiety in patients with dementia.

To do this, researchers conducted a study involving 17 dementia patients and their caregivers. Researchers spent three weeks helping participants select songs that held personal meaning and taught caregivers how to play these selections on a portable music player. Then, the participants with dementia listened to a series of 20-second clips: eight clips were of music from the participant’s personal collection, eight clips were of songs from their collection played backwards, and another eight clips were of total silence. Researchers observed the participants’ brains during the listening period via functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures oxygen and blood flow to the brain.

When listening to musical clips, blood flow increased to the brain’s salience network. Blood flow also increased between the regions that control language and visual memory, which suggests that these regions of the brain were communicating during this time. Researchers hope that activating these regions of the brain may reduce dementia symptoms, improve overall mood, and even delay cognitive decline.

Study researcher Norman Foster explained: “Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.”

Since one in three seniors passes away with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, these findings are extremely promising. Those with dementia not only lose the ability to recall memories and communicate with others, but their unfamiliar surroundings often cause anxiety, disorientation, and mood changes. Researchers believe that something as simple as music beloved by patients could tap into a still-functioning brain and improve their quality of life.

That said, researchers acknowledge that their sample size for this study was small and that more needs to be done to determine whether the effects of music on dementia patients is limited to the short term. But for many caregivers, the idea that familiar tunes could restore some of their loved one’s memories and better balance their mood is welcome news, indeed.

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