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.

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Can You Positively Affect Your Cognitive Aging?

Earlier this summer I attended an engaging lecture given by Charles M. Reynolds, III, MD, a professor of Geriatric Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 2.23.05 PMIn his talk, Brain Health As You Age: You Can Make a Difference, Dr. Reynolds discussed information aging and the changes that occur in the brain. He also highlighted an Institute of Medicine report, Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action (available to download as a PDF).

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Music that Heals the Soul

Music by itself cannot heal a disease. No one these days, however, disputes that music can heal the soul, making illness more bearable.

Some time ago I wrote about Alive Inside, a movie that documents the success of therapeutic music programs with elderly participants who have dementia of Alzheimers. The program, started by Dan Cohen, pairs a patient with an iPod music player that contains recording of favorite music from a person’s life. Check out this video clip from the documentary.

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So How Does Music Connect With the Brain?

I’ve watched in wonder as music changes people — kids, adults, people who are ill, elders, and caregivers. Of course, the movie Alive Inside visually documents how music can affect people, even those with substantial memory loss. But what exactly is happening in the brain?

In the process of wondering, I came across an excellent video from TedEd (where cool lessons and videos reside). It explains  how the brain processes music when a person listens and how even more complex activity occurs when an individual actually plays an instrument.

Check it out below. 

Alive Inside: This Movie Is Extraordinary!

ec9acd50595499364a6994542e145924_largeYou know a movie speaks to the audience when people just sit there as the credits start to roll rather than getting up and moving out. That’s what happened this evening when my husband and I went to see Alive Inside, the Sundance award-winning documentary about the role that music plays in the lives of elderly people who experience brain disease and loneliness. At first, no one got up to leave.

The other day I described how we watched a preview of Alive Inside at one of Dr. Bill Thomas’ Second Wind events last March and how we were moved to tears. That only begins to describe the reactions in the movie theatre tonight. The people in front of me were tearful and talking about a relative. The young people behind me were sniffling and whispering about their grandmother. I was thinking about my family members.

As I looked around, I observed individuals with hands on their faces, hands folded in prayer, and people with eyes riveted to the screen as we all watched person after person, mostly elders, smile, move, talk, remember, and transform — as the music played. We saw exuberance, animation, even joy come on to faces that, only moments before were vacant.

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Grandma by Jessica Shepherd: A Book Review


Grandma book

Recently I discovered a children’s book, Grandma, that tells a story, from a child’s point of view, about a much-loved grandmother who develops dementia. As an educator, I’ve often thought about the need for books that help children understand the disease while illustrating how to continue to love and support a family member who experiences dramatic memory changes. Only now, years after my family lost my husband’s mother to this terrible brain disease, are children’s books that address dementia beginning to appear.

Grandma, an easy-to-read picture book written and illustrated by Jessica Shepherd, fits the bill. Young Oscar shares his thoughts about his grandmother, describing the fun they have, the fond ways they interact, and the changes that have come about since she “started forgetting a lot of things.” He describes how she lives in a new community, with caregivers, and tells about his visits.

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