iPods Reach Through Fog of Alzheimer’s with Music

UCLA Health article

Listening to music that evokes happy memories of days gone by can change the tenor of lives debilitated by dementia. And with no new medical treatments since the approval of memantine in 2004, helping some of the 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease feel better with music therapy sounds really good to Joshua Grill, PhD, director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagain Treatment Development Program, and head of the Recruitment and Education Core at the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA. Dr. Grill has launched a campaign to collect pre-owned iPods and MP3 players for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients in nursing homes.

While no studies have been published, “anecdotal reports of what happens with patients who get [iPod and MP3] music therapy are pretty staggering,” Dr. Grill says. Nursing homes report that patients receiving music therapy are happier and more sociable. “Patients who haven’t slept through the night in a long time may now sleep through the night,” he notes.

Dr. Grill began his quest for iPods and MP3 players after hearing a story on NPR about the national nonprofit organization Music & Memory, which he partners with to provide music therapy to nursing homes in the Los Angeles area. The Easton Center pitches in with a Tunes for Alzheimer’s Patients webpage that provides donation details. Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by severe memory impairment, so it may seem a contradiction for patients to be able to connect with memories via music. But “the biology of the disease is affecting the part of the brain that lets us put new memories in — short-term memory,” Dr. Grill says. “The brain continues to work pretty well at pulling old memories out, and that can persist until very late in the disease.”

While Alzheimer’s patients “may not be able to remember a list of words you gave them five or 10 minutes ago, they often can give you spectacular details of memories from their youth or young adulthood,” Dr. Grill notes. “Music may tap into old memories — positive experiences from your youth associated with particular music — even better than just trying to remember things.”

Research on stroke patients with damage to parts of the brain that control the production of language has found, oddly enough, that although they can’t speak, they can sing. “There’s an innate quality that music has that activates the brain differently for Alzheimer’s patients — who are dealing with the significant challenge of a biological disease attacking the brain — and may enable the activation of networks that haven’t been activated in a long time,” he says.

So far, Dr. Grill has been able to send 14 iPods to patients at a nursing home in Northridge, a small but significant start. Three of those iPods Dr. Grill donated himself, two of which needed repair. “It’s not much work to collect iPods,” he says, “and we can make an impact on lives that we wouldn’t otherwise. Why wouldn’t we do that?”

To make a tax-deductible donation of iPods and MP3 players — both working and non-working — along with chargers, headphones and iTunes gift cards so that nursing homes can purchase music for their patients, visit the Easton Center Tunes for Alzheimer’s patients at www.eastonad.ucla.edu.

To learn more about the UCLA Alzheimer's and Dementia Care program, visit dementia.uclahealth.org

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