Two friends have recently been diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment. It feels important to share some thoughts about music and dementia.

After playing the harp many times for residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s, I have found familiar music to be most effective. This is music that they know – patriotic tunes, hymns, classical, oldies, big band sounds, love songs, Irish, etc.

Dr. Petr Janata, a neuroscientist of the University of California-Davis validates this observation. He says, “The medial prefrontal cortex (located just behind the eyes) is also one of the last brain regions to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s disease. This may help explain why many Alzheimer’s patients can remember and sing along to tunes from their youth when other memories are lost.”

In a recent study, Janata showed that this region seems to be a central hub linking music, memories and emotion. He used an imaging technique called fMRI to look at the brains of young adults while they listened to song clips from their childhoods. When they heard familiar songs, the medial prefrontal cortex lit up. Activation was strongest when the song evoked a specific memory or emotion.

It is exciting when intuition and science merge! If your family and/or friends are touched by dementia or Alzheimer’s, try familiar music to connect them to memories and/or emotions.