Millions of expected to be living with dementia by 2025. While there is no cure, there’s growing evidence that music can help ameliorate symptoms such as depression and agitation, writes Kelly Oakes – and also bring these people and their families some much-needed moments of joy.
When he was just 30 years old, Daniel received a diagnosis nobody was expecting.
The former drummer and engineer had to give up work after developing problems with his speech, memory, and motor skills.
The culprit was a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition most common in over-65s, but which can affect much younger people too.
“Certain things happen every day, me forgetting what I’ve done, and also what I have to do,” Daniel says. “It gets a bit overwhelming. Generally, it’s quite hard to be in social environments.”
It was only when Daniel was diagnosed that he realized his father, who died at the age of 36, must have had the same condition.
The news came just after the first birthdays of his own children, twins Lola and Jasper.
For someone of Dan’s age, their lifespan is about four years from diagnosis. It’s pretty scary to hear that, you just feel hopeless,” says his partner Jordan. “It’s hard to watch somebody so young, fit and healthy have all these symptoms.”
Daniel has joined a choir of people with dementia, put together by actress Vicky McClure in memory of her grandmother who lived with the condition and died in 2015.
While caring for her nonna, McClure noticed that music, in particular, singing together, brought a smile to her face.
“When we sang we were all on the same page,” she says.
The 18-strong choir is made up of people living in and around Nottingham, where McClure grew up, all of whom are living with dementia in one form or another.
Dementia is an umbrella term, covering any progressive change in someone’s thinking abilities. It can manifest in different ways, affecting memory, language, emotion, and behavior, depending on what is causing it and which parts of the brain are damaged.
Types of dementia
Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60% of people with dementia mostly affecting people over 65, though 5% of people with Alzheimer’s are younger
Vascular dementia, which occurs when blood vessels in the brain are damaged, reducing blood flow to brain cells, affects 20% of people with dementia
Dementia with Lewy bodies affects 10-15% of people with dementia – Lewy bodies are small round clumps of protein that build up inside nerve cells
Frontotemporal dementia, which primarily affects people aged between 45 and 64, accounts for fewer than 5% of dementia cases – symptoms may include changes in personality, memory loss, confusion and difficulty with day-to-day tasks
Source: Alzheimer’s Research
For most people dementia progresses slowly, meaning they live with it for many years.
There is no cure, though doctors can try to prevent further damage and slow the progress of the disease in patients with some types of dementia, vascular dementia for example. In other cases, treatments focus on alleviating symptoms and helping patients to live well with the illness.
That’s where music comes in. There is growing evidence that music can play a part in helping people with dementia live happily and fulfilled lives after they are diagnosed.
To help investigate this idea, Vicky McClure’s choir took part in a study run by Sebastian Crutch, a professor of neuropsychology at the Dementia Research Centre, University College London, into how music and visual arts affect people with dementia.
Crutch’s work looks not only at what people say they feel during and after these activities like singing or viewing an exhibition but also how their bodies react. The choir’s singers wore a wristband that measured heart rate, temperature, movement, and “electrodermal activity” – sweat levels on the skin.
The results showed that movement and heart rate decreased during the choir rehearsals. People living with dementia can often feel agitated and restless, so these scores probably indicate that they’re feeling calmer as they sing.
That was also the message from the survey asking the singers how they felt – which showed a positive effect on their wellbeing. The two results backed each other up, Crutch notes.
“I think for us that’s quite an important signal because usually, people had looked at these things in isolation,” he says. Previous studies tend to have relied only on self-reported effects, or on external measures, but not both.
Most of the evidence concerning music and dementia relates to courses of music therapy.
A research review published in 2018, looking at music therapy trials in nursing homes or hospitals, found that the sessions improved symptoms of depression and behavioral problems in people with dementia, but said more research was needed to determine the duration and other effects.
Other reviews have found evidence that music therapy can help decrease agitation, and that music therapy is effective for reducing behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. bbc
Scientists don’t yet fully understand how music helps people with dementia.