Alzheimers Disease and Music

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]


The pathway to freedom?

Most people are familiar with the symptoms of dementia, particularly those of Alzheimers. Confusion, inability to know who you or the people around are, and a general decline in many of the mental faculties, as well as apathy. This is particularly hard on family. As the dementia progresses, the victim may forget who even his or her closest friends and family members are. I read a story once of a man who was woken up when his wife started screaming because she found a strange man in her bead (him). It is a tragic thing. The family longs for the lucid moment when the victims mental faculties are unshackled and, for however short a time, they are themselves. However they are somewhat few and far between.

But what if there was a way to negate this symptoms. Even if there was a way to have two lucid moments in a day instead of one, wouldnt that make all the difference? What if there was something that was immune to the effects of Alzheimers? It seems that there is.


It interacts with our brain in the most incredible ways. Almost every part of our brain is activated by music. It effects our emotions and our ability to learn. I will cover this much more in the rest of this series, but for now, I will stick with Alzheimers.

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes of a man he once met who had been diagnosed with Alzheimers some 13 years previously. He remembered almost nothing. Not where he live, what he did for a living, or even how to dress and groom himself. He did, however, remember the baritone part of almost every song he had ever sung. Quite an accomplishment considering he had sung with an a capella male voice chorus for many many years. He even was able to open a concert, despite getting lost on the way to the stage.

But music can also improve the symptoms of dementia. Sacks also writes of a women with sever dementia. She literally lived on her couch morning, noon, and night, watching television for most of the time. One time, one of the caregivers had the bright idea of turning on the classical channel. Within the next 24 hours, marked changes began to take place. After living on the couch for so long, she asked to be brought to the table to eat with the family, and began communicating and taking more interest in her surroundings.

But why?

Ever had an experience where you a doing some simple task, and all of a sudden a memory jumps out of what seems to be nowhere. Frequently the memory shares some sort of similarity with what you are doing now. It is almost as if a certain task or experience comes with embedded memories. Music can work in much the same way, as two of the brain structures that respond strongly to music are the structures that deal with memory and emotion.. Songs from someones past, particularly songs one sang, can bring back all but inaccessible memories from ones past. As Oliver Sacks says in a video about the topic, the patient might remember when they first heard the song. Perhaps it was an outing, on Coney Island, the kids were there. etc. It all comes flooding back. Emotions show up to, and music can cause happiness that can last for hours after the music has stopped in even the most apathetic of patients

A patient doesnt even have to be musical to experience this. Music effects almost everyone (I said almost, will blog about that later) in a profound way. It continues to do so throughout dementia.

Although we may never know exactly why or how this happens, we do know this. Music is something so ingrained in us, that even the most sever of mentally degenerative illnesses cant eradicate it.

What about you? Have you ever seen someone with Alzheimers (or any form of dementia) respond in an incredible way to music? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]