Music can boost memory and mood

Dan Cohen watches Mary Lou Thompson, who has Alzheimer's, respond to the playlist he made for her.

Image: Photo Courtesy of BOND 360

By Dr. Anne Fabiny, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch

You may have seen the award-winning documentary film Alive Inside, which was released in 2014. It follows Dan Cohen, a social worker who is bringing music to people with dementia in nursing homes.

Cohen asked a documentary film maker to follow him around for three days to witness the astounding effect that music was having on the behavior, mood, and quality of life of patients who appeared to no longer have much of a connection to themselves and the world. The film maker was so moved and impressed that he followed Cohen for months and created this film.

Cohen's method is fairly simple. He asks a resident's family to list the songs or instrumental pieces the person once enjoyed. He then creates an individualized playlist on an MP3 player for the resident.

The music, which ranges from jazz to rock to classical, elicits surprising reactions. Some people, who had seemed unable to speak, proceed to sing and dance to the music, and others are able to recount when and where they had listened to that music. The music seems to open doors to the residents' memory vaults.

There is a growing body of evidence to explain why people in the movie come back to life and begin to feel like there former selves when they listen to their playlists. Listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward. Two recent studies—one in the United States and the other in Japan—found that music doesn't just help us retrieve stored memories, it also helps us lay down new ones. In both studies, healthy elderly people scored better on tests of memory and reasoning after they had completed several weekly classes in which they did moderate physical exercise to musical accompaniment.

Researchers at the music and neuro-imaging laboratory at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have shown that singing lyrics can be especially helpful to people who are recovering from a stroke or brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates in the undamaged right side of the brain, people can learn to speak their thoughts by singing them first and gradually dropping the melody. Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords used this technique to learn to speak well enough to testify before a Congressional committee two years after a gunshot wound to her brain destroyed her ability to speak. Singing has also helped healthy people learn words and phrases faster.

To witness music therapy at work, go to the website of the Music and Memory Foundation, musicandmemory.org, and see what happens to one nursing home resident, Henry, as he listens to his music. You can also learn more about the movement that Dan Cohen has started and find out how you can get involved. And if you are caring for—or care about—someone with mild cognitive impairment or dementia, I guarantee it will inspire you to get an MP3 player and create a playlist for that person! It may also inspire you to make one for yourself, as well.