The Positive Benefits of Music for People with Dementia

Just before 1 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon in February, two dozen members of a band in Southern California log on to Zoom. As people join the meeting, Zoom panels flicker to life on the screen, forming a grid of smiling faces, bandmates wave excitedly to one another. All of them hold instruments—some real, like drumsticks and maracas, and others makeshift, such as kitchen tongs, pot lids, metal spoons, and a cutting board. Promptly at 1 o’clock, Carol Rosenstein, the group’s leader and co-founder, calls the rehearsal to order.

The band, known as the Fifth Dementia, is unique for a variety of reasons. Its members have vastly different backgrounds and music abilities. Some of them have been with the group since it started in 2014, while others have belonged for just a few weeks. Some members are talkative while others can hardly speak. What they have in common, however, is this: Each person either has a neurodegenerative disease or is a caregiver for somebody with one.

Three times a week the band comes together to sing and socialize. Those activities, along with playing instruments, help the group members because they trigger the brain to release mood-elevating neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin. A music therapist, Laura Mui, directs each rehearsal; this February session also includes a special guest, John Fitzgerald, who leads everyone in a rhythm exercise to get them warmed up.

After Rosenstein’s introduction, Mui asks members to open and close their hands to the beat of her metronome. She segues into a rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” on guitar before handing the group off to Fitzgerald, who taps out a beat with his drumsticks and invites the others to follow along at home. People in the group hold their instruments up to the screen and shake out a rhythm. “My bottles of Parkinson’s medication make great maracas!” shouts one of them.

For the next hour, the band members play their instruments, sing folk songs, and share how each song or rhythm made their bodies feel. At 2 p.m., Rosenstein, 75, wishes everyone a safe and happy weekend and closes with the song “What a Wonderful World.”

Before the Fifth Dementia moved to a virtual platform in March 2020 because of COVID-19, its members met up to rehearse in a Presbyterian church in Brentwood, CA. Rosenstein founded the band after her husband, Irwin, who’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006, developed dementia. She was looking for nonpharmaceutical ways to alleviate some of his symptoms, such as his “stony-faced stare” and agitation. Irwin had played saxophone and piano in college, so Rosenstein thought music might help.

“After just 10 minutes of playing piano, he’d resurrect, like a thirsty plant after a drink of water,” says Rosenstein. When she reported this to her husband’s neurologist, he told her that music had the ability to “change brain chemistry,” she recalls. That was just the spark she needed to find others affected by neurodegenerative disease and bring music to them as well.

Rosenstein says that her work with the Fifth Dementia and its umbrella organization, Music Mends Minds, has been her biggest consolation during the COVID-19 crisis. Irwin, a former attorney for the Federal National Mortgage Association, started declining significantly after 2018. Soon he could no longer walk or talk and mostly lived in his own world. In January 2021, he died from complications of COVID-19 at age 84. The Rosensteins had been married for 35 years.

Carol remembers the first meeting of the musical group she formed for her husband, which was held at a local music school. “Four souls gravitated to the Steinway piano in the middle of the room. There was a drum kit next to the piano and a myriad of instruments in students’ cubbies nearby,” she says. “Irwin grabbed a saxophone, someone produced a harmonica from his shirt pocket, and they started to play. That was the moment they became the core of the Fifth Dementia, which paved the way for Music Mends Minds.”

Today, the global nonprofit educates people about the benefits of music and fosters a community through musical support groups. In addition to the Fifth Dementia, Music Mends Minds has helped create 20 other bands for people with neurodegenerative diseases, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and posttraumatic stress disorder (and their caregivers). The bands boast hundreds of members worldwide. “We accept them on key or off key,” Rosenstein says.

Music as Medicine

The notion that music is good for the brain is supported by research, says Alex Pantelyat, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “There have been several studies and large reviews in the last several decades that suggest music can have a lot of positive benefits for people with dementia,” he says. “It’s not going to reverse the course of the disease, but it can relieve symptoms such as depression and anxiety, and it can facilitate meaningful changes in the trajectory of the condition.”

A study involving 25,000 nursing home residents with dementia, which was published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in 2017, found that those who took part in an individualized music therapy program over a six-month period had fewer behavioral problems, such as agitation. Many of the people in the study were also able to discontinue their antianxiety and antipsychotic medications.

Music also may have an indirect yet positive effect on neurodegeneration in people with Parkinson’s disease, Dr. Pantelyat says. “There’s good evidence that moderate aerobic exercise three to five times a week for at least 30 minutes will help slow progression of the disease, but how do you motivate people to exercise when the lack of dopamine in their brains makes them less motivated to do anything?” One answer is music—it may inspire them to exercise or take part in other beneficial activities like physical therapy or speech therapy.

The socializing that’s done in these musical ensembles is advantageous too, says Dr. Pantelyat. Many people with Parkinson’s disease are isolated because of either physical limitations or a lack of confidence in their ability to speak or remember. On top of that, they may be apathetic due to a loss of dopamine and unmotivated to socialize. But playing in a band allows them to be around others who can relate to their situations.

A Boon to Caregivers

Jan Parker and her husband, Eric, 79, who has dementia, joined Tunes for the Memories, a band formed in Palm Desert, CA, that’s part of Music Mends Minds, shortly before the pandemic started and seldom miss a rehearsal. “We are both really open to doing whatever we can,” Jan, 74, says. “If you give up, that’s when deterioration really sets in, and we want to keep ourselves as healthy as we can for as long as we can.”

When asked if he thinks making music with the band has improved his life, Eric chimes in with a resounding “You betcha!”

Other couples have told Rosenstein they consider the regular one-hour rehearsals three times a week a “blessing” and a nice break for the spouse who is a caregiver, a job that can be lonely and difficult at times. Members agree that connecting with others during the video calls has been fun and rewarding.

After the death of her husband and especially in the midst of the pandemic, Rosenstein is more determined than ever to help people with neurodegenerative disease make music.

Source: Brain ans Life