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Playing the Mind's Soundtrack

Playing the Mind's Soundtrack
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Spring 2020
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For some living with dementia, music can unlock memories and improve quality of life

Stephanie Hartman, 69, has frontotemporal dementia and often can’t remember the day or month. But when she hears show tunes from “Evita” or “Les Misérables” on her iPod, her mind is filled with detailed memories of watching these productions live on stage. 

A former singer, actor, choir leader and theater teacher, Stephanie has many precious memories of music, which can be instantly accessed by hearing specific songs. 

Stephanie was given the iPod loaded with her personal collection of music by the Alzheimer’s Association Central and Western Kansas Chapter as part of a study conducted by the University of Kansas’s Roth Project. The Roth Project, which investigates the effectiveness of music therapy, recently found that personalized music improved the mood of 78% of study participants living with dementia, and had numerous other benefits.

“Music puts you in a relaxed mood,” Stephanie says. “When you are having issues of frustration or you can’t do something or you are forgetting things, this is really good at focusing your thoughts on good things that are good memories for you.” 

Music often stored in long-term memory 

Researchers are still determining why some individuals with the disease can vividly remember music but are unable to access other memories. Dementia often impacts memories of recent events first, but can be slow to affect memories from earlier in a person’s life that are stored in their long-term memory. Since music is often a part of complex emotional experiences — a wedding song, or a tune belted out with friends in the car as a teen — these events can get hard-wired into the brain’s long-term memory and remain accessible even after dementia wipes others away. 

Although music cannot slow or prevent cognitive decline, it can improve quality of life for people with dementia. Numerous studies have shown that listening to familiar music can reduce anxiety, depression and aggressive behavior, and even aid in swallowing and pain management. 
Researchers have taken notice of the benefits of music and are conducting further investigations. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded a $20 million grant to the Sound Health initiative — a project working to increase understanding of how music can be harnessed to improve health and treat neurological disorders.

Connecting to life’s moments through music

The “Music Moments” album features 10 songs from award-winning artists who share their personal stories about the power of music.

Listen to the Album

The power of the right song 

To help spread the benefits of music, the nonprofit Music & Memory provides senior care facilities with digital music players and training on how to create personalized therapeutic music programs. Music & Memory Consulting Advisor Letitia Rogers, 49, of San Diego, has seen how the right music can awaken people living with dementia. Letitia says finding the musical keys to memory means going beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

As a “music detective,” Letitia creates therapeutic playlists by interviewing individuals and their caregivers about their music memories, preferences and personal backgrounds. She then conducts research to find songs that are important and tied to positive memories. 

“When we hit the right song, we can light somebody’s brain up and they can reconnect to familiar stories, to people in their life, to their history,” Letitia says. “People will be kind of quiet and reserved. Put those headphones on with a familiar piece of music and people’s heads lift, their eyes open up, and this thing happens that is warm, loving, connected and beautiful.” 

A way to connect

Letitia has personally experienced the benefits of music while caring for her grandmother, Joy Miller, 91, who has dementia and lives in a memory care facility. Lately the disease has limited Joy’s ability to socialize — until they play music. Every time Joy hears “I’m an Old Cowhand” by Bing Crosby, she perks up and talks about her husband, who often sang that song. 

“My grandmother doesn’t remember she had breakfast five minutes after eating. But when we put music on, she tells me stories about my grandfather and her father, about her childhood … suddenly pistons are firing, and she reconnects to her history and reconnects to me,” Letitia says.

Joy Miller’s father, Ira (left) in his band The Pumpkin Rollers. The band performed the 1920s song “Margie,” and Joy would sing with them during rehearsals. A version of the song is on Joy’s playlist, and can bring back memories of her father and childhood.

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In some cases, music can provide a connection between caregivers and people living with dementia. “I’ll hear things from caregivers that this gave my mother back to me, allowed us to connect. I haven’t seen her speak and she spoke to me today,” Letitia says. 

Since playing music is inexpensive and low-risk, Stephanie suggests giving it a try. “I have times where I just need a calming moment, and music is really good for that,” Stephanie says. “[Dementia] is kind of crummy to go through, but music really is a helpful aid to manage it. I’d like that for anybody.”

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