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“Unforgettable” – How Music Benefits Seniors

Posted 9/19/2017 by UHBlog

Music can counteract some of the negative effects of aging, such as memory and hearing difficulties. Talk to us to learn how music therapy can help your loved one.


Recent research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), suggests that favorite songs from a person’s past can ease depression, agitation and other symptoms of dementia. These researchers say that music is a powerful force that taps into the deepest recesses of your mind.

In fact, says music therapist Seneca Block, MT-BC, playing certain songs to patients can temporarily disrupt the grip of dementia.

“The neat thing about music is that it is diffusely activated throughout the brain, so no matter what sort of disease or pathology a person experiences, music has a way to reach them like no other stimulus does,” Block says. “Often, a person with late-stage dementia isn’t able to utter a sentence, but you can play a song from their childhood or their early teens and they are able to recite every lyric back to you. Music helps to reinforce and rebuild their brain’s neural pathways that have been damaged.”

One example cited by Block is former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011, severely damaging her brain and rendering her unable to speak.

“She worked with a music therapist who used a technique called melodic intonation therapy, which is based on the idea that some patients who can’t speak are still able to sing,” he says. “The technique involves putting a phrase to a melody. Over time, you take away the melody and the patient learns the phrase. The way we process music in our brain is similar to the way we process language. However, music has a broader impact. So even though the section of the brain responsible for speech was gone, Gabby was able to retrain other areas of the brain for speech through music therapy.”

Music memory is one of the last things affected by Alzheimer’s and other memory-related conditions. According to the UCI research, one example it noted is a patient with advanced dementia who continued to play the trombone in a Dixieland band and could even learn new tunes.

“Music naturally has therapeutic value,” Block says. “Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity, shows that listening to music that gives you chills is actually increasing blood flow to the parts of the brain associated with positive mood. Additionally, music is well-suited for pain management due to its ability to affect the brain in a similar way that drugs do.”

Block says neuroscience studies show that the brain of a musician tends to have a highly densified corpus callosum – which allows communication between the right and left sides of the brain – and the arcuate fasciculus – which is often called “the language highway.”

“Music affects many areas of the brain like nothing else,” he says. “We frequently use the phrase, ‘use it or lose it,’ referring to using your brain to keep it healthy – and that illustrates why music is so important. The parts of the brain that are put to use will grow.”

The good news, Block says, is that it's never too late to stimulate the brain with music.

“As people age, music can serve as a maintenance tool to impact the language center in their brains,” he says. “Learning and playing an instrument will help to maintain a person’s mental sharpness. At University Hospitals, we have developed a ukulele class. It's inexpensive and easy to learn, and it's a way to get people to engage with music as they age.”

Block says listening to music from an earlier time in a patient’s life can be comforting, but the era of a tune is less important than the way a patient associates with it. For instance, people battling cancer may despise a certain popular song because they heard it played frequently during a time when they were taking chemotherapy.

“Sometimes you don’t know what is going to resonate with a particular patient,” says Block, who performs as a bassist in a local pop/groove/soul band. “I recently worked with an elderly women who loved Kid Rock. The most effective music therapy uses the style of music a person prefers, whether it is relaxing or aggressive.”

Seneca Block, MT-BC is a board-certified music therapist at University Hospitals Connor Integrative Health Network. You can request an appointment with Block or any health care provider online.

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