Benefits of music to patients with dementia

Dementia now represent one of the greatest health challenges for humanity. But, music therapy appears to be an effective healing tool.

The increase in the elderly population and the lengthening of the average life span has led to an increase in diseases linked to aging.

Dementia is a clinical syndrome with different causes, characterized by the deterioration of cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional functions (Van der Steen JT et al., 2017).

ognitive aspects, functional aspects, and neuropsychiatric symptoms are three broads areas the symptoms can be grouped into.

The cognitive decline may involve different areas: memory, language, learning, executive functions, attention, movement, social cognition.

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s; the number of people affected by it reached over 35 million worldwide in 2013. There is a projection that this number is estimated to triple in 2050.

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic and progressive neurodegenerative disease. It is a disease that affects memory, thinking, behavior, and other important mental functions. More so, it is the most common cause of dementia in the elderly population.

Medical interventions have shown limited efficacy in slowing cognitive decline and, as reported in the literature (Algar K. et al., 2016). At present, there is no pharmacological treatment capable of curing Alzheimer’s dementia.

Music therapy for dementia

The limited effectiveness of pharmacological treatments and the plasticity of the human brain are the two major explanations of the growing interest in non-pharmacological treatments.

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It  has the main purpose of supporting and activating those mental functions that are not completely deteriorated, intervening on the residual potential and on improving quality of life.

One of the most common non-pharmacological approaches for treating the neuropsychiatric, behavioral, and psychological symptoms of dementia is the use of music.

The use of the pleasant and relaxing effect, in some cases “therapeutic”, of music in sick people has its roots in very distant time.

It was born and developed mainly in a psychiatric environment. But, it has broadened its limits of application to geriatrics and the vast problem of dementias.

Music therapy is a part of the Arts-Therapies. More so, is a non-pharmacological intervention which aims to increase emotional well-being through cognitive stimulation and social interaction.

Music therapy; types and effects

Music therapy interventions can be administered to an individual or group of people.

It is classified into two; active and receptive. Active, in which patients are invited to have direct and creative experiences. Likewise, receptive, where listening and the aspect of subsequent verbalization are privileged.

In this regard, a recent study highlights that the receptive music therapy intervention is more effective in alleviating the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.

Many studies supporting the application of music therapy to dementia. Villani and Raglio argue that sound and music activate archaic expressive and relational modalities and that the use of music therapy in Alzheimer’s disease ((Villani D. & Raglio A., 2004).

music therapy activities carried out with Alzheimer’s patients which show that the same patients benefit from it in different aspects. Aspects like short-term memory, mood, spatial-temporal orientation, sense of identity, expressive, and relational skills.

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Music therapy: effects on behavior symptoms

Research so far has focused primarily on the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD). BPSD such as agitation, aggression, irritability, depression, or apathy. The results are promising, showing a positive effect on these behavioral symptoms.

Specifically, agitation is a very common behavioral problem in patients with dementia. This includes a variety of behaviors such as repetition, restlessness, wandering, and aggression.

Both studies in which the patient’s active participation was necessary (singing, dancing, clapping, or playing an instrument). Also, receptive interventions in which the participant was only asked to listen to music were analyzed.

Despite the small number of studies considered. It was found that musical interventions are significantly effective in reducing agitation in this type of patient.

Some studies have also shown that music therapy improves memory, orientation, and anxiety-depressive symptoms in patients. Patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia. Although with some limitations, it is evident that several studies confirm the efficacy of the music therapy approach. Especially in psycho-behavioral disorders in dementias.

Music therapy: effects on cognitive functions

Regarding the effects of music therapy on cognitive functions. Research has shown that this type of intervention can protect cognitive functions in Alzheimer’s type dementia. Especially autobiographical and episodic memory, psychomotor speed, executive functions, and global cognition.

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The 2014 study by Chu and colleagues showed that group music therapy, in addition to reducing depression in people with dementia, delays the deterioration of cognitive functions, especially short-term memory.

Furthermore, Gallego and other researchers observed cognitive improvements after six weeks of music therapy intervention in particular on memory and orientation.

Despite the various researches that provide evidence of the efficacy of music therapy in preserving cognitive functions in dementia, especially Alzheimer’s. The results are not convincing enough. Short-time and long-time effects can be verified by more clinical studies.

Conclusion

It can be asserted that music therapy is a valid intervention for the treatment of dementia. Also, it is known for its beneficial effects on behavioural and psychological symptoms, as well as for its social and emotional role. 

On the other hand, the possible effects of cognition deserve to be examined with larger studies and samples.

This is to be able to ascertain the effectiveness of music therapy on all levels, from the psychological-behavioral to the cognitive, for an overall improvement of the quality of life of the demented patient.

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