THE BLOG
03/15/2016 03:11 pm ET | Updated Mar 15, 2016

How Alzheimer's Caregivers Use Enhanced Music to Recover Lost Memories

Have you ever wished, just once, your loved one suffering from Alzheimer's might remember your name, or a treasured memory you both share?

More than 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia. Alzheimer's robs patients of their memories, leaving many in need of care from their loved ones, or nursing home staff.

Giving care to an individual with Alzheimer's is exhausting, and often heart-breaking. The things they used to love about you start to annoy them. They don't seem to listen. They're no longer interested in hobbies that sparked a sense of joy and purpose. That once-brilliant mind you admired becomes confounded by simple tasks.

According to a recent CNN report, the number of Americans aged 65 and older with Alzheimer's is expected to triple by 2050. Rekindling lost memories improves quality of life of both the patient and the caregiver.

How Can Music Help?
Petr Janata, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain, studied the relationship between Alzheimer's patients and music and found fascinating results. "The brain appears to be wired throughout for music," says Janata, "since it engages a wide variety of functions, including listening, language, and movement." But Janata recently located an area of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, serving as a hub for music, memory, and emotions. It also happens to be one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy as a result of Alzheimer's. This explains why a patient still remembers the lyrics to an old favorite, but not the day of the week, or the name of the street where they live.

You've Got the Music in You

Imagine waking up every day not knowing where you are, or the names and faces of the people around you. Many patients lash out, demanding answers to the same questions they asked the day before, and the day before that. Anti-anxiety meds are prescribed, and a sense of isolation grows. According to Alzheimer's Foundation of America, as dementia progresses, the ability for a patient to share thoughts and gestures of affection with their loved ones diminishes.

"Music can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease. The connection can be so strong that hearing a tune long after the occurrence evokes a memory of it."

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America recommends caregivers play the patient's favorite songs to stimulate exercise. Even withdrawn patients might choose to dance. Those no longer walking can swing their arms or pat in time to the beat. An alternative to moving is encouraging your loved one to sing. Singing is associated with safety and security from early life.

Ron Gregory, founder and president of Alzheimer's Music Connect explains, "The appropriate music is capable of stimulating the patient's most well-preserved memories." Gregory reports that in uncommunicative patients, a familiar song will suddenly "wake up" a long-ago memory and bring the patient into the present, making them cognizant of their surroundings.

"It is exceedingly moving for all involved when someone with advanced dementia becomes more alert and animated, more connected, and more dignified due to a heightened lucidity brought about by music. Families and friends sometimes experience music's profound ability to recover speech and memory as 'magical'."

But the release from anxiety is born of more than a few Classic Oldies. For decades, caregivers in hospitals and nursing homes have used music as recreation, since it brings patients pleasure. But beyond the entertainment value, there is growing evidence that listening to enhanced music helps stimulate seemingly lost memories, and even restores some cognitive function.

Is music an alternative, drug-free treatment for Alzheimer's disease?

Turn Back the Hands of Time

Neurologist Dr. Lorianne Avino discovered that the EEG response to "enhanced music" included "increased frontal lobe activity, greater alertness to the present moment, calmness and increased symmetrical brain activity."

Ron Gregory founded Alzheimer's Music Connect when he developed Altus Oscillation to enhance music, utilizing a process called brainwave entrainment. But what's the difference between enhanced music and a CD off the shelf, or a song on the radio?

Alzheimer's Music Connect's patent pending enhancement blends ancient OM sounds practiced for centuries in meditation with Alpha waves at or slightly below the hearing threshold. "EEG scans confirm stimulated wave levels, in conjunction with the rhythmic time of music," Gregory says.

"We learned from an extensive national study that one hour of exposure to enhanced music equals three hours of the listener/patient being calm and relaxed after the music has been played."

Neurologist Dr. Avino reports, "The results are a significantly more therapeutic effect than music alone."

Does the solution begin with an Oldies playlist?

Bridge Over Troubled Water

The songs the patient used to play too loud and in repetition back in high school seem to be the ones that resonate the most.

For Janata's study, he chose songs randomly from top 100 charts from years when each subject would have been 8 to 18 years. "A piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head," reported Janata. The stronger the autobiographical memory, the greater the engagement.

In many nursing and convalescent homes, headphones are increasingly popular, but in many ways it's a short-sighted solution. A caregiver is required to put on the headphones or earbuds, select and download the music, and set the device to play. One touch on the wrong button can result in a very agitated patient.

"Putting headphones on an individual with Alzheimer's is as isolating as not doing anything at all. The combination of music and conversation leads to improving the cognitive skills of the Alzheimer's patient."

-Teepa Snow, Behavioral and Occupational Therapist

The Altus Oscillation tool is a set of custom-selected, enhanced music CDs featuring songs popular during the patient's formative years, relieving caregivers of occupational hazards, download time and capability, and song selection. "Music is about building a bridge," explains Gregory, "it's a form of bonding, affection, and mutual understanding and pleasure."

While old song favorites are proven to bring patients pleasure and spark remembrances, the important piece of the treatment is connection. Attachments to certain songs are a result of the bonds formed while listening to them. These bonds occur during the lullaby we sing to our infant, the music we share with high school buddies, or even the confounded racket our gregarious teenager insists on blasting. The most significant and lasting results from using music with an Alzheimer's patient come from playing it aloud, interacting with the patient, and involving them in a conversation about what memories come to mind.

Gregory says, "Caregivers reported in our survey that they had as much as two hours of downtime after sharing enhanced music." When an Alzheimer patient feels relaxed, happy and safe, the caregiver can enjoy rejuvenating downtime.

Music is about connection. The bonds we share throughout our lives through music are not forgotten, and may prove the bridge between you and your loved one with Alzheimer's disease.

About the author:
Rebecca Laclair is a journalist, music lover, and author of the groundbreaking book, RADIO HEAD. Get acquainted at www.RadioHeadBook.com.

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