A new study suggests that hearing and singing songs from popular musicals can help those suffering Alzheimer’s disease recover lost memories and improve their mental and emotional health, yet again highlighting the healing power of music.
The study, presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, involved residents at an elderly care home on the East Coast. A research team from George Mason University, Fairfax, VA sought to find out whether culturally significant classical songs, such as those from The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz, might have a positive effect on Alzheimer’s sufferers who were encouraged to participate in group singing exercises.
The elderly people involved in the study were all considered moderate to severe Alzheimer’s sufferers, meaning that they had persistent issues with remembering things and had impaired cognitive abilities that meant they needed help carrying out day to day tasks. They all took cognitive tests at the beginning of the study. Those with moderate Alzheimer’s, who were assigned to an assisted living group at the facility, were placed in one group. Those with more severe Alzheimer’s, who were kept on a secure ward at the care home, made up the second group.
Both groups took part in three group singing sessions a week for four months. Each session lasted 50 minutes. Only half of each group joined in with the singing while the other half simply listened.
After the four month test period was over, the subjects then took a further round of cognitive tests. What the researchers saw was that among the people who sang there was a marked improvement in mental ability. They also demonstrated an improved ability during simple drawing activities like drawing the hands on a clock face so as to represent the time. Just as importantly, those involved in the study also reported a marked increase in their well being and general positive feelings.
This research supports other findings that music can serve a variety of functions in helping to boost mental health and aid memory, particularly in the elderly and those with degenerative mental conditions. Studies have shown that taking music lessons when we are young can help keep our brains healthier during our later years. Scientific inquiry has also found that music can be a component of helping to treat clinical depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, due to its soothing effect on the brain.
In September, a Helsinki University study was released that looked at the impact of a 10-week singing course for people with dementia. The study found that, compared to the patient’s usual care regimen, the course of singing and listening to music appeared to improve their mood, sense of where they are and also certain memory and cognitive skills.
All this, researchers say, should inform the way we use music as therapy and especially in how we approach caring for our elders.
Group Sing Therapy and Creating a Stimulating Environment
Researcher Dr. Jane Flinn, who was involved in the latest musicals study, told the Guardian that she believes there is enough evidence to say that group singing activities should become a regular part of elder care:
“Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful. The message is: don’t give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy and engaging.”
Research also backs up the claim that a stimulating environment can be key in helping Alzheimer’s patients, both in terms of their cognitive abilities and overall mental health.
Most recently, a study led by Dennis Selkoe of the Neurologic Diseases in the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), demonstrated that an enriched environment with regular exposure to new activities can play a vital role in delaying the effects of dementia.
What is very interesting about all this research is just how easy it is to adopt: music is a pleasure that comes at very little expense yet for people suffering from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other issues of mental decline, it really can make a massive difference, and it perhaps puts a new spin on that old notion of something going for a song.
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