Music and Dementia

December 2, 2021
music and dementia brain

Research has highlighted the benefits of listening to and making music for those living with dementia. Dementia is defined by the NHS as ‘a syndrome associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning’. My grandma lived with dementia for several years, and I have witnessed the progression of this condition from the earliest to final stage. Whilst her memory for her family faded and she could no longer recognise names or faces, I was surprised that her memory for music remained, and she was able to name works on the radio and their composers.

I have also been taking part in the Wigmore Hall’s Singing With Friends project recently, which is a weekly choir for those living with dementia, their families and carers. The positive effect of music and making music collaboratively struck me, and from these experiences, I became intrigued as to why musical memories are the last to go for those living with dementia.

How does dementia affect the brain?

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, and this interferes with the ability of these cells to communicate with one another. When cells in a particular region of the brain are damaged, that region cannot carry out its functions normally. In order to retrieve long term memories, multiple regions of the brain have to communicate. For example, if you are remembering something you saw earlier, you are using your occipital lobe, and if you remember something you were thinking about earlier, you are using your frontal lobe. All of these different recollections get stored in the hippocampus to form a memory. The hippocampus is the centre of learning and memory in the brain, and the brain cells in this region are often the first to be damaged. This makes it harder for someone to form new memories or learn new information. As dementia spreads throughout the brain, additional areas become affected, and the brain gradually shrinks, causing symptoms including memory loss, mood changes, confusion, and movement problems.

Diagram showing a normal brain (left) and one affected by dementia (right).

However, for those living with dementia, their musical memories manage to survive the widespread damage to the brain. Research has shown that the musical memory area of the brain is separate from the hippocampus, and this musical area has the lowest amounts of shrinkage. For those with dementia, other areas of the brain also have a decreased glucose uptake, meaning the brain is not consuming enough sugar to function properly. However, the musical memory area is still able to get enough glucose to function properly.

How common is dementia?

There are more than 850,000 people in the UK who have dementia. The number of people living with dementia is increasing because people are living longer.

How does music benefit those living with dementia?

Research has suggested that listening to or singing songs provides emotional and behavioural benefits for people living with dementia. Neuroscientists have described the effect of music as ‘lifting the haze’. When a favourite piece of music is heard, a pleasant signal in the brain is triggered, called the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. This can relieve stress, anxiety, depression, and agitation for those living with dementia. As a direct result, this can benefit caregivers/ family members, and it also acts as a means to connect with loved ones who have dementia – especially those who have difficulty communicating.

Listening to music can also activate emotions and even old memories, and studies have shown that the effect of engaging the brain with music considerably boosts thinking ability. 

For those with dementia who engage in collaborative music making, e.g. singing sessions, more of the brain is being used. As singing activates the left side of the brain, listening to music sparks activity in the right, and watching the session activates visual areas of the brain. With so much of the brain being stimulated, more mind power is exercised than usual.

Watch this video to see the benefits of music:

Musical schemes for those living with dementia

Dementia friendly choirs are increasingly popular throughout the UK. Here is a list of some projects aimed at those who live with dementia:

  • Singing for the Brain – this is a service provided by Alzheimer’s Society in approximately 30 locations, all of which use singing to bring people affected by dementia together in a friendly and stimulating social event.
  • Singing With Friends – this is a weekly choir for people living with dementia, their families, and carers, and is part of the Wigmore Hall’s, Music for Life programme. They give a performance on the Wigmore Hall stage three times a year.
  • Raise Your Voice – this is an opera programme for people with dementia and their carers, run by Glyndebourne Education Department.
  • Forget-me-not Chorus – this is a charity that runs weekly choir sessions all across Wales for those living with dementia.
  • Dementia Sings Out – this is a weekly community choir based in Northamptonshire and is open to anyone living with dementia. The singing is followed by refreshments and socialising amongst all the participants’ carers and the Dementia Friends Wellingborough Community Gospel Choir members.
  • Giving Voice – a choir aimed to bring together people with dementia and their carers. These choruses take place worldwide.

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