Research finds therapeutic benefit to patients' favourite music in Alzheimer disease

Older man listening to music.

You know that music can improve your mood and help you focus. Whether you’ve relied on your favourite songs to pump you up at the gym or to block distractions and keep yourself on task at work, music is an important part of daily life for many people. But for patients with Alzheimer disease, music can have therapeutic benefits that can alleviate some of the anxiety that can accompany the disease.

"In the first phase of our clinical trial, we looked at whether music therapy could reduce behavioural symptoms of Alzheimer disease," says Dr. Robin Hsiung, Associate Professor in the Division of Neurology, UBC Faculty of Medicine, and staff neurologist at the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders (UBCH CARD) in the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.

"We found that disruptive behaviours in patients with Alzheimer disease were reduced, which has benefits for the patient as well as for caregivers and family members."

Behavioural symptoms of Alzheimer disease include anxiety, irritability, depression, agitation, restlessness and emotional distress. Music therapy is a complex approach that includes creating familiarity through repetition and personalizing care to the individual to address unique preferences and symptoms. The 12-week program engages patients for an hour at a time and can include singing, playing music, drumming, dancing to music, or simply humming or focused listening, depending on the ability of the patient.

"As a way of managing Alzheimer symptoms, music therapy can be highly effective with minimal adverse effects," says Dr. Hsiung. The benefits of the therapy lasted for several days, or up to several weeks in some cases, and did not involve any additional pharmaceutical intervention. “We also assessed patients’ stress by measuring their morning cortisol levels. Patients who received music therapy were found to have less of the stress hormone.”

So what kind of music lowers stress and anxiety for patients with Alzheimer disease? "We assumed it would be classical music when we were designing the study,” said Dr. Hsiung. "But really, your music preferences are shaped in your teen years. Patients respond well to rock music, country, choral hymns, or jazz, whatever they have always enjoyed listening to."

Music therapists design programs based on individual taste, and if a particular piece of music has significant meaning to the person receiving care, that song is emphasized throughout the treatment program. "Music taste is highly specific to each individual," says Dr. Hsiung. "Music preferences for most people are set when they are young, for better or worse."

The next chapter in Dr. Hsiung's research will look at the benefits of other types of artistic expression, and will use fMRI to examine the effects of music therapy in real time.

For more information on Dr. Hsiung’s research or the Alzheimer and dementia research taking place at UBCH CARD, attend the 2016 Alzheimer Update on January 30. To register or for more information, email alzheimer.events@ubc.ca.