singing helps late stage Alzheimer's patients singing helps late stage Alzheimer's patients New research shows singing can help late-stage Alzheimer's patients to speak. (Photo: Kamira /Shutterstock)

Familiar songs may help prompt Alzheimer’s patients to speak

Study finds that music therapy helps spark memories, gets patients communicating.

A music therapist has found a way to connect with patients in advanced stages of Alzheimer's Disease, and it's as easy as singing a song. 

New research published in the Journal of Music Therapy found that familiar songs might encourage conversation in patients with the degenerative disease that affects memory and brain function and often renders patients unable to think clearly as the disease advances.

Music therapist Ayelet Dassa of Bar-Ilan University, in Ramat-Gan, Israel, has been working with Alzheimer's patients for the past 18 years. She conducted the study as part of her doctoral dissertation, and published the report with co-author Dorit Amir.

Their findings suggest that singing helps to temporarily “reawaken” patients who suffer from Alzheimer's.

Her research is concurrent with a new documentary that's been making the rounds in U.S. theaters beginning in August. "Alive Inside" won best U.S documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and focuses on the same observations that Dassa found in her music therapy work.

The documentary follows New York social worker Dan Cohen as he incorporates music in Alzheimer's patients' routines, in an effort to reduce their reliance on medication. Cohen, like Dassa, wants to make music therapy a standard part of nursing home care.

To try to quantify the impact of music therapy, Dassa selected six Alzheimer's patients between the age of 65 and 83 to attend group music sessions twice a week for one month. Four of the subjects were born in Israel, while the other two had been living in Israel since their early teens. Dassa selected 24 songs popular in Israel between 1930 and the late 1950s – songs that connect them to their social and national identities. Dassa played guitar chords as accompaniment and invited group members to sing with her. Participants were also given a handout with the lyrics for each song. After each song, Dassa led a conversation using open-ended questions related to the song's lyrics. "The aim of the conversation was to elicit memories and to evoke feelings concerning those memories," she said.

Dassa said that after the session, group members showed improvement in their ability to speak, and expressed positive feelings and a sense of accomplishment.

"It is important to find ways to prevent people with Alzheimer's from withdrawing into silence.” Ayelet Dassa, music therapist

The research was part of a yet-to-be-published larger study that showed improvements in patients' ability to sing and speak over the one-month period.

“The findings of this study demonstrated that singing familiar songs helped to encourage conversation among people in a moderate to late stage of Alzheimer's,” Dassa told From the Grapevine. “In a state of language decline, it is important to find ways to prevent people with Alzheimer's from withdrawing into silence.”

Dassa said the act of singing provides many physical and emotional benefits. “Perhaps the emotional and arousal states of participants had an effect on their ability to concentrate and therefore influenced their language ability,” she said.

Singing can also bring relief to caregivers, Dassa said. “Singing evokes feelings of familiarity, brings comfort and joy, and creates a soothing environment, and can be used not only as a tool to reduce agitation, but also to promote conversation,” she said.

As to whether singing could help to stem the disease in its early stages, Dassa said it's hard to say. “Further research is needed to examine the role of singing throughout different stages of Alzheimer's and in people in the early stage of the disease.”

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