Music, the Brain, Aging, and Memory Diseases

Jack Horner leads singing as Mickey McInnish plays keyboards during the Side by Side Singers practice at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday October 27, 2015. The choir is made up of people with dementia, their family members and volunteers at the Respite Ministry at the church.

Jack Horner leads singing as Mickey McInnish plays keyboards during the Side by Side Singers practice at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday October 27, 2015.

We live with music throughout our lives — it surrounds people no matter what their age. Children, of course, love to sing at almost as soon as they are born, but music, even for those who are not musicians, is a part of the air people breathe. Interestingly, music appears to become even more important as people age and contributes to a higher quality in life in the elder years.

No one these days disputes that music can bring happiness, joy, peace, energy, and even some sort of healing to people of every age. Increasingly, however, we are learning that for fragile elders, music not only brings joy but also rekindles memories. So why doesn’t every community of older adults have a musician on staff or at least a musician in residence who can lead a chorus, a sing-along or hymn sing? I believe that organized music programs, and not just performances that people watch, belong in every community of aging adults.

Daphne Johnson, the director of the Respite Ministry at the first United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, knows first hand the importance of music. She and others associated with the ministry began a chorus that became what she calls the Side-by-Side Chorus, made up, not only of the people who attend the respite activities, but also their caregivers and volunteers from the church. An experienced conductor leads the singers and chooses songs that aim to connect the 40 or so participants to events in their lives. Enthusiasm is high. The chorus has even performed at events away from such the church, most recently in February at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

The Side by Side Singers practice at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday October 27, 2015. The choir is made up of people with dementia, their family members and volunteers at the Respite Ministry at the church.

The Side by Side Singers practice at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday October 27, 2015.

When I spoke with Ms. Johnson, she scoffed at using the words “dementia choir,” a term which sometimes appears in the press. “That’s not what it is at all,” she said. “Instead, the chorus is a group of people coming together for fellowship, making music and coming alive with joy.” Her program is doing something special and provides a model for every community where older adults live.

One of the most interesting music articles that I’ve read recently described research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Neuroscientists Nancy Kanwisher and Josh H. McDermott figured out how to use brain imaging to reveal how the brain responds to sounds, music included, as well as what parts of the brain process musical sounds.Their findings (abstract) indicated that one special place in the auditory cortex responds to and processes music. In a February, 8, 2016 article, New Ways Into the Brain’s Music Room, New York Times reporter Natalie Angier describes how the MIT researchers went about designing the study, more about the results, and a bit about the next information they will be seeking.

Here on AsOurParentsAge I’ve written a number of posts about music. Aging, Falls, Music, and Dalcrose Eurhythmics describes how a program that combines music and movement appeared to prevent falls and improve balance of older senior participants. Alive Inside: Music Brings Back Memories and Dignity describes the success of the Music and Memory initiative which brings back memories via personalized music,  and I posted a delightful video about how playing an instrument benefits a person’s brain. Of course, I cannot forget my own family’s discovery about the power of music when my husband’s mother, who had lost most of her ability to talk, could sing along — clearly — when we played songs from her favorite Broadway musicals.

At every age music surrounds us, no matter what we do. Indeed almost all activities — sporting events, shopping, work, movies, holidays — are accompanied by music. Certain pieces such as Happy Birthday and Pomp and Circumstance become tightly associated with celebrations, but sometimes merely thinking about a topic makes an individual begin whistling or humming a song. Occasionally we keep hearing that song play in our brains — sometimes for hours. Just this morning I was thinking about Easter and suddenly I found myself humming the hymns that we will be singing at my church in a few more days. My brain made those connections subconsciously without me even thinking about the process.

Music somehow affects the brain giving people a stronger sense of well-being. Adult children and staff members at long-term care communities or retirement villages need to be sure that there is enough music in the lives of aging adults.

 

 

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