Research into music and dementia

There is a robust and growing evidence base supporting the benefits of music for people living with dementia, demonstrating its impact and value – and giving us hope for those living with the condition.

One of the most compelling studies is a systematic review of systematic reviews in 2007, which concluded that music is a more effective intervention than other therapies.

The paper investigates non-pharmacological interventions to treat behavioural disturbances in people with dementia. Only music therapy and behavioural management techniques were shown to be significant in their effectiveness for reducing behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) compared to other interventions.

Reducing distressing symptoms

The 2018 Cochrane Review, Music-based therapeutic interventions for people with dementia, included 22 trials which found music-based treatments improve symptoms of depression and overall behavioural problems, and may also improve anxiety and emotional wellbeing, including quality of life.

Similarly, in The use of a music therapy choir to reduce depression and improve quality of life in older adults, people’s mean quality of life score improved by 57% and depressive symptoms were reduced by 54%. Forty participants actively participated in a music-therapists led choir for 12 weeks and also reported improved mood and physical gains as well as memory improvement.

Protective factors

There is evidence to suggest that music acts as a modifiable protective factor against developing dementia. A study of 157 pairs of twins found that those who played a musical instrument in older adulthood were 36% less likely to develop dementia and cognitive impairment.

Improved speech, cognition, memory and attention

Regular singing or music listening sessions improved general cognition, attention and executive function such as emotional self-regulation when compared to standard care in Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Benefits of Regular Musical Activities in Early Dementia. The sessions consisted of singing/listening to familiar songs coupled occasionally with vocal exercises and rhythmic movements (singing group) as well as reminiscence and discussions (music listening group). In addition, the intervention included regular musical exercises at home.

Other studies revealed: improvements in autobiographic memory in a group of nursing home residents who regularly had Big Band music from the 20s and 30s played to them. They were more alert, happier and had higher recall of past personal history than control groups taking part in other activities.

Cost efficiencies

Research demonstrates that musical activities generate a social return on investment. One project estimated that cost-effective method of dealing with agitation in care homes. The review looked at the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of sensory, psychological and behavioural interventions for managing agitation in older adults with dementia.

New research

As new research becomes available, we will write about it on our news pages and post links here. In October 2020 a cross-sectional study of reminiscence bumps for music-related memories in adulthood showed the presence of a ‘bump’ in adolescence for the familiarity of songs featured in the charts and ratings of the autobiographical salience of these songs.

In January 2021 a study on the relationship between musical instrument playing and later-life cognition was published. It supports the positive association, with musicians playing frequently demonstrating the best cognition.

Another related piece of research was published in June 2021 – Musical instrument engagement across the life course and episodic memory in late life. Looking at the relationship between music-making and memory performance over a lifetime, it found that people who started playing as adults did better at memory recall tasks in their middle to old age.

The above is not exhaustive

To read more about this subject, download our white paper on evidence of music-based interventions in dementia care with links to further research.

If you would like to add your piece of research to this section, please contact us.

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