Music

Music & Memory is changing how doctors treat memory-related diseases in the elderly

While we don’t currently have a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, Music & Memory, a nonprofit organization, works to help ease its effects. We all know what music means to us personally and what it is capable of doing for our own wellbeing, but it is remarkable to see its effects can help cope with diseases as seemingly hopeless as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

When Executive Director Dan Cohen heard a radio host mention that iPods were found everywhere, he thought to himself that it may be true for young people and many adults, but unlikely for those in any kind of senior care facility. He volunteered at a local nursing home and tested out making personalized playlists for the residents and found the results to be overwhelming. He decided to take his methods to a larger scale.

“I needed to be better able to convince others of the benefit the music was having,” Cohen said. “People were just saying, how nice you are bringing the old people music, but they didn’t understand the level of impact on improving mood and cognition,” said Cohen.

With funding, he brought the experiment to a larger scale by bringing 200 iPods to residents of four different nursing homes. The positive results led to the creation of his nonprofit organization Music & Memory in 2010.

The program aims to make personalized playlists for nursing home patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Upon hearing their favorite songs and artists from their past, they regain a sense of self and remember memories not lost to their disease. This brings them back to life, allowing them to socialize and converse better than they had been able to before.

A video of a patient named Henry reacting to hearing his old favorite music was so heartwarming and inspiring that it went viral, reaching over 11 million views. The documentary “Alive Inside,” screened at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City soon after that viral video, eventually heading to the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.

“I found a filmmaker to just capture a few minutes of film.  That turned out to be the viral Henry video.  And from there we made other short videos and then decided this would make a documentary; hence, ‘Alive Inside,’” said Cohen.

A study was conducted at Brown University, whose objective was “to compare antipsychotic use and dementia among long-stay nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s that were and were not exposed to Music & Memory.” The study concluded the Music & Memory program may be associated with reductions in dementia and antipsychotic use among nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s.

The program is finding widespread success in the United States, and is starting to establish itself in Canada and Mexico, too. But this is not enough for Cohen.

“Our goal is that every person who might benefit has access to their own music,” he said. “In the U.S. 3,600 of the 67,000 health care facilities offer Music & Memory programs so far, so we have a long way to go.”

Hopefully in the future, this program will become more widespread and reach members of our own families who might be affected by one of these diseases. It’s also exciting that there has been so much progress made, that maybe by the time we all reach such a point in our lives, music may even be able to reverse the effects of these diseases, letting us live longer and be aware of ourselves and our surroundings for a longer amount of time than those before us.

Jenny Bourque is a freshman English and textual studies major. Her column appears weekly in Pulp. You can email her at jabourqu@syr.edu.

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