How can music help people who have Alzheimer's disease?

Answers from Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.

Research suggests that listening to or singing music can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer's disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.

For example, music can:

  • Relieve stress
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Reduce agitation

Music can also benefit caregivers by reducing anxiety and distress, lightening the mood and providing a way to connect with loved ones who have Alzheimer's disease — especially those who have difficulty communicating.

If you'd like to use music to help a loved one who has Alzheimer's disease, consider these tips:

  • Think about your loved one's preferences. What kind of music does your loved one enjoy? What music evokes memories of happy times in his or her life? Involve family and friends by asking them to suggest songs or make playlists.
  • Set the mood. To calm your loved one during mealtime or a morning hygiene routine, play music or sing a song that's soothing. When you'd like to boost your loved one's mood, use more upbeat or faster paced music.
  • Avoid overstimulation. When playing music, eliminate competing noises. Turn off the TV. Shut the door. Set the volume based on your loved one's hearing ability. Opt for music that isn't interrupted by commercials, which can cause confusion.
  • Encourage movement. Help your loved one to clap along or tap his or her feet to the beat. If possible, consider dancing with your loved one.
  • Sing along. Singing along to music together with your loved one can boost the mood and enhance your relationship. Some early studies also suggest musical memory functions differently than other types of memory, and singing can help stimulate unique memories.
  • Pay attention to your loved one's response. If your loved one seems to enjoy particular songs, play them often. If your loved one reacts negatively to a particular song or type of music, choose something else.

Keep in mind that music might not affect your loved one's cognitive status or quality of life. Further research to better understand the precise effects of music and Alzheimer's disease is needed.


Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.

Sept. 29, 2015 See more Expert Answers