School of Nursing

September 21, 2019

World Alzheimer’s Day

September 21 is World Alzheimer’s Day, an opportunity to raise awareness about this disease, its causes, and effects. The National Institutes of Health estimate that more than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to realize that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same thing, but they are related.

Dementia is the term that refers to symptoms that impact memory, performance of daily activities, and communication abilities.  Dementia is an umbrella term that a variety of forms of mental decline fall under with Alzheimer’s being the most common (accounting for approximately 60-80% of cases). Alzheimer’s disease worsens over a period of time and affects memory, language, and thought. Unfortunately, it is a terminal disease.

Alzheimer’s affects the lives of the patients who have the disease, but it also impacts the millions of people who are caring for someone struggling with the disease.  Despite years of research, medical science has had very little to offer in the way of medication or other treatment that would modify the course of the disease or reduce its toll on caregivers and patients.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, care becomes more demanding and the incidence of behavioral and psychological symptoms increases. These symptoms are distressing for caregivers, and are sometimes dangerous for both family caregivers, professionals, and the patient.

Agitation is a leading cause of institutionalization in adults with cognitive impairment. These behavioral changes impose a substantial burden emotionally and financially on families and society. Today, agitated behaviors are typically managed with psychotropic medications that are marginally effective and decrease quality of life because of their adverse side effects.

But, there is one thing that can make a difference and that’s music! I have been studying how patients with Alzheimer’s respond to music and have seen positive effects in moderating negative behaviors of people with Alzheimer’s.

When presented with music, particularly music that was part of their life prior to their disease, people often showed remarkable responses.  Agitation was reduced, communication and mood improved, and preliminary research even shows that some physical symptoms are reduced.

Why does this happen? A number of studies using MRI imaging have established that musical memories are stored in specific parts of the brain that seem least affected by the degenerative changes of Alzheimer’s. Playing music that is familiar activates those areas in a way that increases attention and pleasure.

But what does this do for the caregivers? If we are able to reduce adverse behaviors and agitation, the lives of those who care for these patients will be improved as well.  A recently published study reported that the use of music “decreased the care burden of caregivers and the patient’s blood pressures were brought under control.”

I am currently involved in a study that may provide even more definitive evidence of the value of music for caregivers.

Music is not a cure for Alzheimer’s. It does, however, provide patients and their caregivers an opportunity to improve communication, access parts of the brain that remain less affected, reduce stress levels and agitation during caregiving, and provide some respite and joy.