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Music Helps Alzheimer's Patients Recall Memories

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“When the music played, the patients went to a beautiful place in their mind. We saw them dancing or tapping their feet and moving their heads. It was amazing to watch.” - Kristine Carpina, LPN

Music therapy is a therapeutic tool that has been utilized in healthcare since World War II. According to the American Music Therapy Association , music therapy tools are used today in numerous healthcare settings to promote wellness and help patients manage stress in a healthier manner. In fact, research from the Arizona State University’s (ASU) College of Nursing & Health Innovation is examining how music can help people living with Alzheimer’s disease reduce stress and positively connect to long-term memories.

To complete the study, the ASU researchers partnered with musicians from the Phoenix Symphony and the care team at the Huger Mercy Living Center. They call their combined efforts the “Music & Memory project.”

Before the music even began to play, the Music & Memory project team collected saliva samples from each of the volunteers from Huger Mercy Living Center to test for biomarkers of stress. According to ASU Now, a publication from the Arizona State University, as Alzheimer’s progresses, patients may often need help with tasks like bathing, dressing or using the restroom. Sometimes this can be stressful for residents – and caregivers. Based on this, the team from ASU collected saliva samples from the patients and caregivers before and after the patients received a bath. They collected samples on days with and without a symphony performance.

According to Kristine Carpina, LPN, a clinical care supervisor at the Huger Mercy Living Center in Phoenix, Ariz., collecting the samples proved to be challenging.

“We had to consider the residents that are more advanced in the disease did not understand what we were trying to do, since it was out of their routine,” she said. “We had to spend more time with them individually to make sure we collected the sample properly.”

Next, the Phoenix Symphony played music for the participants at the Huger Mercy Living Center.

“When the musicians played, the patients went to a beautiful place in their mind,” said Carpina. “They were calm and relaxed with the soft music and became more active when they heard an upbeat rhythm. We saw them dancing or tapping their feet and moving their heads.  It was amazing to watch.”

As the project continued, the musicians switched from a performing a planned set list to responding to residents and take requess, playing a wide variety of music from fight songs to polka tunes to hymns.

This process continued for six weeks and included the patients and the Huger Mercy Living Center staff. Through their research, the team discovered that the use of music therapy helped regulate the stress levels for all the patients and caregivers involved within the project. The ASU Now article noted that the Music & Memory team “evaluated the effect of live music on the moods of residents, caregivers, musicians and loved ones before and after performances. The caregivers, musicians and loved ones rated their own moods, while a nurse or activity coordinator evaluated the residents.”

The team’s results show that the musical performances improved the moods of people living with Alzheimer’s immediately after performances. What is more, the music was also likely to help ease stress at other times, such as during a bath. Additionally, their research indicates that the moods of the musicians, caregivers and loved ones was also more likely to be positive.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned was that the mind can forget but not the heart,” said Carpina. “I saw that the patients that love music always go back to the music.  They might not know the words but you could tell by the smiles and enthusiasm that they were enjoying the pieces.”

To learn more information about the Music & Memory project, visit www.asunow.asu.edu

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