Researchers at the University of Utah think they may have found a way that might – just might – slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease – no drugs, foods or supplements required.
The non-invasive technique they’re studying stimulates parts of the brain that Alzheimer’s doesn’t touch. And the Utah scientists think that it could be useful for supporting brain areas linked to memory and mood that can still be revived.
The therapy they’re analyzing? Music. From what they’ve learned so far, it also helps people with Alzheimer’s feel more grounded and connected to reality. Here’s how to put it to work for yourself or someone you love. . .
Using Music to Physically Change the Brain
You may have heard that many long-term care facilities play music to their Alzheimer’s patients, and find it has a soothing effect. In many cases, music helps family members and staff communicate with patients whose memories are very nearly gone.
In the Utah study, researchers used brain imaging to show that, when Alzheimer’s patients listen to familiar music, it activates parts of the brain called the executive network and the salience network as well as the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network. At the same time, these brain regions displayed what the scientists call “higher functional connectivity.”
In other words, after weeks of listening to music, many of the neurons in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims formed stronger networks capable of exchanging nerve impulses.1
“This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease,” says researcher Normal Foster who directs the Center for Alzheimer’s care at the University of Utah.
“Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.”
Now the researchers admit they need to further study these effects. They don’t really know if the benefits can be prolonged or if they’re only temporary. The improved connections among neurons may not last.
My guess is they don’t last, but that’s okay. It’s an easy therapy to continue. And from what is well-known about the brain’s “use it or lose it” character, we shouldn’t be surprised that benefits fade.
Helps Healthy People, Too
Aside from this research on Alzheimer’s patients, other investigations have shown how particular types of music can have an effect on our daily activities.
For example, a study in India shows that listening to meditative music – what the researchers call “yoga music” – at bedtime has important health benefits for the heart, reduces anxiety and helps bring on sleep.2
In this test, the yoga music increased what is called heart rate variability – a measure of how well the heart adapts to the body’s needs. Generally speaking, the greater your heart rate variability, the better your heart health.
Music also boasts many other benefits:
Enhances creativity: Research in the Netherlands shows that listening to happy music – defined by the researchers as classical music that is uplifting – helps people solve problems in more creative ways. This study found that listeners to this type of music enjoy more flexibility in their thinking that allows them to come up with innovative solutions that are “outside the box.”3
Influences what you eat: You should beware the music played at a restaurant. While soft, soothing music can be conducive to making healthy choices from the menu, a study at the University of South Florida shows that louder, raucous music can make you lean more toward junk food.4
You may have noticed that no matter what activity you take part in nowadays, it’s likely to be accompanied by music. Every retail outlet you go into has piped-in music. Sporting events are often bathed in sound. Even my doctor’s office has soft music playing in the waiting room.
So it’s a safe bet that all of these musical environments have been designed to try to make you spend more money or, in the case of the doctor’s office, keep you calm.
Oh, and one more bit of advice. If you’re a Dad and your family has a game night at home, don’t let the kids play rock music while you compete. A study in Australia shows that rock music distracts men – but not women – and makes them commit more mistakes while playing board games.5