Today’s Music Rx: Listen Once a Day for 20 Minutes, Dance as Needed

Written By: Marc Rothman, MD

As younger folks adjust to their ‘new normal’ in the COVID-19 era, the ill effects of social isolation and loneliness on people with dementia will likely continue for months, at least. We know that sudden social isolation, usually due to the death of a spouse, retirement, or loss of mobility, puts seniors at risk for depression, cognitive decline, and even death. With no magic pill for isolation, or for dementia, people are turning to more basic, tried-and-true methods to raise the spirits and connect with others, singing and dancing among them.

If you haven’t already brought music into the home and life of your loved one with dementia, now’s the time, because we know that listening and singing to music reduces anxiety, depression, and agitation. Studies over the past twenty-five years have shown that popular music from dementia patients’ youth often produces signs of pleasure like smiling, singing, and/or moving and dancing.

  • One study by the University College, London, reported that familiar songs evoked stronger and faster (less than a second) responses compared to unfamiliar songs.
  • Another study on the effects of music on Alzheimer’s patients suggested that the part of the brain that governs music stays relatively intact despite diminished cognition.

Imagine that in the brain of your loved one, there’s a locked keepsake box full of autobiographical memories that functions independently of other memory systems. The key to unlocking this box of experiences may very well be familiar songs from your loved one’s youth. The memories are there just waiting to be accessed.

We’re fortunate to live in an age where the power of the internet can filter and sort song titles from any era, genre and nationality. You may already know the songs that evoke happy memories in your loved one, but if you don’t, ask family or friends to make suggestions. Once you’ve compiled a list of songs, you can purchase music on Amazon, iTunes, or search for music on YouTube for free. 

Now that you’ve sourced the music, consider these tips to optimize the experience for your loved one:

  • Play soothing music when your loved one is agitated and upbeat music when they seem to be down. 
  • Monitor your loved one’s responses, noting the music they enjoy as well as the music that may elicit an adverse reaction. 
  • Try to get your loved one to sing along with you because it’s a great mood booster, and there’s anecdotal evidence of people with dementia who sing, suddenly become present and oriented.  
  • Close the door and eliminate any competing sounds like the television, and make sure your loved one can hear the music. 
  • Once you’ve set the stage, introduce movement by helping your loved one clap along or tap their feet.
  • Dance.

Once music is part of the routine, it’s time to add dancing, movement.  Even when wheelchair-bound, dancing can enhance the benefits of listening to music for your loved one. 

A compelling 2003 study examining leisure activities and the risk of dementia found that frequent ballroom dancing – not solving crossword puzzles or other physical activities – resulted in a 76% decreased risk of developing dementia, more than any other leisure activity.

Moving one’s body to music, whether it’s just moving the arms, legs, or shoulders, provides a creative outlet for expression. Dancing with your loved one may also inspire laughter, deepen engagement, and strengthen your bond, as one caregiver describes in his recent blog on the topic.

Coronavirus has made life with dementia so much harder for families and caregivers alike. Whether you have dementia or not, music and dancing are inexpensive, easy ways to bring some joy into what has already become a long, slow, and challenging year. 

As one of the greatest philosophers of all time said: 

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” ~ Plato


National Institute on Aging, “Social Isolation:  Loneliness in Older People Pose Health Risks,” April 2019

Dementia & Neuropsychologia, “Can Musical Intervention Improve Memory in Alzheimer’s Patients?” April-June 2018

Mayo Clinic, “Can Music Help Someone with Alzheimer’s?” Jonathan Graff-Radford, MD

Practical Neurology, “Music and Dementia: An Overview,” Ronald Devere, MD, June 2017

NPR, “How Music Therapy Could Help People with Dementia,” Patti Neighmond, December 2019

Science Daily, “Positive Effect of Music and Dance in Dementia Proven by New Zealand Study,” University of Otago, August 2019

Aging in Place, “Isolation-Induced Depression in Seniors,” Updated July 2020

BUPA, “Keep Dancing:  The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Dance for Older People”

Time, “One in Three Senior is Lonely. Here’s How It’s Hurting Their Health,” Jamie Ducharme, March 2019

The contents and information on DementiaSpring.Org are for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Any opinions expressed about, or endorsements of persons, services or organizations are solely those of Dementia Spring and are not made on behalf of Signify Healthcare or any other entity.

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