The Unforgettable Power of Music Therapy for Dementia

A Treatment Guide For The Four Most Common Forms of Dementia

Dementia is a rather broad term. A common misconception is that dementia itself is a disease, but that belief is false. Dementia instead is a term used to characterize diseases that affect memory, language, and thinking skills. There are many different types of dementia, the most common being Alzheimer's disease.

Unfortunately, most forms of dementia cannot be cured. However, treatments continue to grow and improve. Music therapy, the clinical musical intervention continues to bring positive outcomes to dementia patients.

Therefore, in this post we will discuss these four forms of dementia:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Vascular Dementia
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies
  • Frontotemporal Dementia

And how music therapy can help treat them.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Most Common Form of Dementia

Alzheimer's is by far the most common form of dementia accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. A basic definition of what happens to a person’s brain when diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is that brain cells begin to die. While many people who are diagnosed live for many years after, it is quite sad because their quality of life becomes rather unpleasant. This is a progressive disease where symptoms begin to worsen over time.

The most common symptoms that occur other than forgetfulness are changes in behavior, movement, language, mood, and thinking. Oddly enough, individuals with the disease tend to struggle to remember new information the most. Therefore, they are more likely to recall older memories.

Vascular Dementia

Dementia Related to Blood Flow

Vascular dementia can coexist with other forms of dementia or can happen on its own. When there is not a sufficient amount of blood flow to the brain this can occur. In vascular dementia, because of the low supply of blood flow, just like in Alzheimer’s, brain cells will begin to die. Vascular dementia accounts for five to ten percent of cases.

Sometimes this form of dementia occurs after a stroke has occurred. To some patients, symptoms may be identical to those of a stroke such as numbness to one side of the face. For other individuals, they may suffer from impairments in speech and movement, along with confusion.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies

Dementia Which Causes Trouble With Movement

Lewy Body Dementia is another form of progressive dementia. Lewy bodies are protein deposits. In this form of dementia, Lewy bodies develop in the brain’s areas where thinking, memory, and movement occur. Aside from the common symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, this disease has some more intense side effects like hallucinations.

Other symptoms that occur include, trouble sleeping, low attention span, loss of motivation, and depression. Sometimes this disease can have similar symptoms to Parkinson’s disease. The symptoms look so similar because Parkinson’s starts because of Lewy bodies, too. Individuals with Lewy body dementia have more trouble with movement than compared to the other forms.

Group of older people dancing and clapping. Man in green shirt is clapping and has a name tag on that says 'Bob'
Older individuals interacting with music at a nursing facility. The article is called “The Healing Power of Music”, image courtesy of AARP.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Dementia In Younger Individuals

Just like dementia, frontotemporal dementia is a broad term for any uncommon disorder affecting the brain’s frontal or temporal lobes. Although this disease is sometimes misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s, what makes this so different from the other forms of dementia is that this can occur to younger individuals. Whereas Alzheimer’s is normally seen in people over 65, frontotemporal dementia is seen in people between the ages of 40 and 65.

Side effects of the diseases are similar to Alzheimer’s symptoms. However, a symptom we have not seen in the other forms of dementia is that people with this disease could potentially have a major change in personality. For example, inappropriate social behavior could occur, such as no longer caring about the feelings of others. Sometimes behavior will become child-like with individuals having a want to put inedible objects in their mouths.

Image showing all lobes of the brain.
Photo showing each lobe of the brain. Music can activate all areas. Image courtesy of River of Calm.

How can music therapy help?

Jogging Memories, Movement, and Thoughts

When a music therapist works with any dementia patient their main goal is to better improve their quality of life and reduce the severity of symptoms. To help memory loss, one of the more severe symptoms, a music therapist will introduce songs that were popular when the patient was younger, somewhere between the ages of 18 and 25. Playing these types of songs tend to bring positive responses since individuals with dementia can better associate with past memories. According to the AARP website, some music therapists say that some patients who have struggled to communicate for years began talking again after being introduced to music therapy.

This occurs because individuals begin to engage with the words in the songs. If you know of someone in the early phases of the disease, music therapists suggest using music therapy as one of the first treatments. Music therapists recommend associating songs with family members so that the patient will be able to recognize a loved one in time.

For forms of dementia such as Lewy body dementia, introducing music therapy could help bring clapping or swaying back into the body. This in turn can cause the individual to become more aware of their surroundings, therefore performing better with movement. Positive outcomes in addition to speech and movement include increased mood levels, more positive social interactions, less anxiety, and fewer anger issues.

The last form of dementia we discussed, frontotemporal dementia, can benefit from music therapy as well. Sometimes, playing music that the patient had an attachment to before being diagnosed can trigger emotions. This reminds the patients of feelings they once had and how they may have been important.

Dementia is a frightening thing and can happen to any one of us. For example, Glen Campbell, a famous musician was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and suffered from dementia. Campbell became very open about his battle with the disease. Opening up about any disease can be worrisome, yet Campbell believed his fans should know. A documentary was filmed concerning how he lived his life with the disease. Campbell continued to perform even after being diagnosed. He was able to remember the words to his songs, but sometimes sang songs twice. You can read more about his amazing story on State News.

Photo of Glen Campbell and his wife, Kim Campbell. The Campbell family opened up about the diseases in hope to break the stigma. Image courtesy of ABC News

Since a lot of the symptoms with these four cases of dementia overlap, music therapy could be used for anyone of these diseases. With Alzheimer’s being the most common, it is obvious that is where the most positive outcomes have been seen. In the future, we hope to see more positive improvements in patients with all forms of dementia.

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 17, 2021

Lydia Bernardo
Lydia enjoys playing piano and spending time outside.
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