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Recently, a video surfaced on the internet of a man singing with his father in a car. The father has Alzheimer’s disease, but you wouldn’t be able to tell when his son hits play on “Quando, Quando, Quando.” Made popular in the U.S. by Pat Boone back in the 1960’s, his father sings along and is “brought back” for the fleeting moments that the song lasts.
Alzheimer’s is a very severe disease that slowly eats away parts of the brain. It attacks nerve cells and neurons, resulting in loss of long-term and short-term memory, overall thought process and language skills, and causes behavioral changes. There are different stages to the development of the disease; it’s different for every patient. One can start with simply just forgetting what they’re doing all of a sudden, and eventually progress to forgetting how to form words.
The Alzheimer’s research community is working on finding ways to possibly slow the onset of the disease, or even eliminate it overall. However, it’s a very complicated disease and even though you can find all kinds of articles floating around telling you “eat your blueberries to keep a healthy brain,” or “download this memory game to keep your mind sharp,” there are no real definitive answers to keeping your brain Alzheimer’s free.
So far, science has only been able to find ways to comfort the patient–for instance, music. Singing, playing an instrument, or even just listening to music, as long as the patient has a connection with it, has shown to improve the patient’s overall mood. Some people, like the son and father singing in the car, say that music gives them a glimpse of their loved one as they were before the disease took over.
Ruth Drew is the director for family and information services at the Alzheimer’s Association based in Chicago. She deals not only with the patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but also with the family and friends having to cope with slowly losing their loved one(s) to the disease. BTRtoday speaks with her about the disease and how music has created some small glimpses of hope.
BTRtoday (BTR): In short, why is it that music tends to be easier in aiding recall for Alzheimer patients than things like names and places?
Ruth Drew (RD): I don’t know if we really fully understand all that applies, but we’ve certainly observed over the years that people connect to music in a way that’s different from speech and language. I’ve heard people say that music is stored in other parts of the brain; we know a disease like Alzheimer’s attacks the brain, starts in the area that handles new learning and new short term memory, and then goes throughout the brain.
So we see the progression can really vary from one person to the next. One person may lose the ability to balance their checkbook, while someone else may loose the ability to read early on, then others may be able to read well into the disease but have some other difficulties. What we observe is that music seems to tap into other parts of the brain that may still be functioning even when a person has gone beyond the point where they can typically carry on a conversation—they may have difficulty finding the right words, they may have difficulty completing a thought and yet these neuro-pathways where the music is stored seem to still be alive and well.
BTR: Would you say it’s more like a coping mechanism or is it actually helping to improve the patient’s brain?
RD: I don’t know if it’s helping to improve; I think the damage that occurs and that hurts the ability to convert remains, but using music is a way to focus on a person’s remaining strengths. I think at anytime the ability to harness someone’s remaining strengths, rather than only focusing on their deficits… we do better. Also, we know we all like to do the things we enjoy and the things that we feel are meaningful.
Often times people in early or mid stages, and even the later stages of Alzheimer’s, may feel bored or restless and anxious and disengaged, so music is one of the ways to engage people.
Currently there is no definitive research that says, “if you eat your blueberries and you go square-dancing and you do crossword puzzles, you will stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s.” We’re just not there at this point.
BTR: Do you have a story where you experienced an Alzheimer’s patient being “brought back” by music?
RD: I have seen one woman in particular. She was very involved in her church throughout her life; that was something that was so important to her, her whole life. She had been a Sunday school teacher and always very involved in the community. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and got to the point where she could not carry on a conversation, she could not remember words very well. Speaking in complete sentences was difficult for her, but she could still remember every word to every verse of every hymn. She was at a long-term care facility where they had a Sunday morning services, and even though she could not carry on a conversation, she would lead the hymn singing.
She’s been in leadership roles her whole life, and they gave her a role to play in the middle of her Alzheimer’s. She could still be a leader, she could still sing and enjoy these songs that meant so much to her in the company of others. So that was something that really brought sparks to her life, brought meaning to her life and put her in a great mood, and whether or not she remembered leading the hymn singing the rest of the day, it affected her mood throughout the day.
I think that’s what we see a lot of time with music. The right music, not just any old music, but the music that the person remembers and the person likes can get their toes tapping, can get them smiling when maybe they were sort of not paying attention before, and now they’re engaged and they’re laughing and they’re smiling and they’re singing along, or dancing, or whatever—we have happy humans on our hands and that’s what you’re going for when you’re caring for people with Alzheimer’s.
BTR: Would you say there is a difference in effectiveness between people who are musicians and singers who did these things all their lives, to people who simply just like to listen to music?
RD: I think it can be affective for anybody if they like music. If they have music that they enjoyed throughout their life, that was meaningful for them, then that’s what should be on their playlist. That’s the music that is going to have a high probability of sparking their interest in getting them engaged.
BTR: Is there any way that music can be a preemptive way to avoid the effects of Alzheimer’s?
RD: I don’t think that we know, research-wise, that it has an impact on the pathology of Alzheimer’s. I don’t think it stops Alzheimer’s from attacking the brain or slows it down. I think it helps people to have better days in the midst of the Alzheimer’s—to have more enjoyment and increases their quality of life and elevates their mood.
BTR: Just out of my curiosity, is there any preemptive way to avoid or delay the effects of Alzheimer’s?
RD: That is a fantastic question, and it’s one that the whole Alzheimer’s research community is grappling with. There is some information that seems to indicate that perhaps there are some lifestyle things that could give us the best chance at aging with a healthy brain, but currently there is no definitive research that says, “if you eat your blueberries and you go square-dancing and you do crossword puzzles, you will stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s.” We’re just not there at this point.