“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
― Plato, Philosopher
Sadly, dementia is the seventh leading cause of death globally, as well as one of the main sources of disability and dependency among older adults. The effects of dementia are far-reaching, negatively impacting the social, financial, mental, and physical health of both the individual living with the condition, as well as those caring for them (1). Research efforts continue to focus on identifying the most effective strategies for preventing cognitive decline and slowing or delaying dementia’s progression (2).
Over the years, music-based strategies have been investigated for everything from hospital stays to walking to sleep, yielding positive results in all of these areas. If music can help reduce anxiety and pain among cancer patients in the hospital, enhance walking speed, and improve sleep quality, it may also have benefits for dementia patients (3-6).
Research on music and dementia is not new. The relationship between the two has been under a microscope for some time, especially when it comes to music and its impacts on behavioural issues, mental health, and resistance to care. For instance, in people with dementia, music-based strategies have been shown to be beneficial for agitation, aggression, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reducing resistance-to-care (7-9). With these positive findings under our belt, let’s shift the conversation to another important aspect of dementia, cognition. Was Plato right? Does music give the mind "wings"? A recent systematic review on active music-making therapy in older adults with cognitive impairment or mild to moderate dementia gives us some insight into this issue (2).
What the research tells us
Well, it turns out Plato may have been onto something. The review presented a promising initial result for cognitive health.
More specifically, within the review, active music-making therapies were delivered by professionals (e.g., psychologists with musical expertise, music therapists, occupational therapists, etc.) and defined as music-based strategies that involved physically participating in music. Examples of these therapies include singing, improvisation, reacting to a sound (e.g., hearing a drum) by clapping, playing percussion instruments, and music combined with exercise. Overall, the review found that active music-making therapy may improve cognitive functioning in older adults with cognitive impairment or mild to moderate dementia. Although this improvement was small, it was clinically meaningful, which suggests a tangible and noticeable effect on one’s daily life. Unfortunately, at this time, clear improvements haven't been observed for other outcomes, such as quality of life, depression, mood, or anxiety. It’s important to note that these are preliminary findings. As such, more research is needed to fully understand the impacts of these music-making activities on various aspects of cognitive and mental health (2).
Tip: If you or someone you care for is interested in music-based programming for boosting cognitive health, be sure to seek out programs developed and delivered by professionals. These programs should enable participants to actively engage in the 'music-making process,' as opposed to just having them be passive listeners.