A smartphone and YouTube give access to innumerable old music videos. (Photo: Ida Korneliussen)

Tunes for the senile blues

Patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia become less depressed when they hear familiar music.

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What if everything suddenly became alien? Who is that woman over there? And what am I doing here in this strange room with these people?

More than 70,000 people out of Norway’s population of 5 million suffer chronic dementia, the debilitating disease that eradicates memory and that leaves them asking themselves questions like these.

The first to go are the most recent memories.

However, people with dementia might recognise older memories, like melodies and lyrics they heard when they were young, which can be buried beneath the frustration they feel about not recognising their own grandchildren.

Anxiety and depression
Tone Sæther Kvamme. (Photo: Ida Korneliussen)

“People with dementia often suffer the additional problems of anxiety and depression,” says Tone Sæther Kvammem a music therapist who has worked with music therapy in nursing homes.

She says it’s unclear whether depression is brought about by direct dementia-related somatic changes in the brain or from the mental burden of no longer being seen by others as lucid.

She noticed during the course of her work that dementia patients appeared to be less depressed and frightened after the music sessions she had with them.

So the therapist followed up that lead and has recently completed a research project about dementia and music at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.

Better quality of life

Six people with dementia were selected for the project.  Each were given roughly 12 music sessions over the course of five weeks.

Researchers scored participants' levels of anxiety and depression before the five weeks, during music sessions, and again afterwards.

“We found that both anxiety and depression were reduced for the group as a whole. They also scored better on criteria that helped quantify quality of life after five weeks of music sessions,” says Kvamme.

Only one person showed a decline, with poorer scores in these areas during the five-week period.

But Kvamme thinks this is related to a weakness in the testing method they used.

The music stopped

Nurses at the institution had noticed that the man in question seemed to be down in the dumps right after the project.

Kvamme says that when the nurses asked why he was glum, he answered: “Because there’s no more music.”

She thinks the end result was tallied too long afterwards the programme had ended.

The patients were scored for a final time from one to two weeks after their last music session.

“None of them got worse during the music period itself,” she said

“Their moods were always better at the end of music sessions than they had been before them. That includes the man who was worse off after the study was over,” explains Kvamme.

Small study

Despite the encouraging results, the researcher readily points out that a study size of six participants is not big enough to allow her to draw conclusions.

But she thinks music is indeed a good tool that can be used by both nursing home staff, and by the family of dementia patients.

Perhaps music can help when words are forgotten. 

Researcher Wolfgang Schmid has said that dementia patients who have stopped conversing can suddenly come up with all the verses to a Christmas carol when they hear the melody.

Sing with grandpa!

The researchers adapted their music sessions to each of the patients in the study by determining their individual music tastes before they started the programme.

“We asked friends, family and the staff at the nursing home. It’s often hard for these patients to communicate what kind of music they used to listen to,” says Kvamme.

“Once we found music they liked it elicited an immediate positive response,” says the researcher.

On these grounds she suggests that families and friends of people with dementia try to ascertain what kind of music they like and can remember. Then listen to it and sing along with them.

Swedish ballads and lullabies

“Conversation attempts can be rather meaningless if language problems are severe. Music, video and songs can make for a fine way to interact,” says Kvamme.

She says the personal likes and dislikes among the patients in the test varied immensely.

The patients liked everything from folk music to accordion music and classical pieces. Popular oldies such as the songs of Sven-Bertil Taube or the children’s songs of decades ago were also favorites.

“Sometimes you have to go far back in time to find something they recognise; maybe even back to songs they sang in elementary school or other children’s songs," she said.  “And lullabies can calm people down."


Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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