Memory and mood in people with dementia improve when their caregivers encourage and help them take part in regular musical leisure pursuits such as singing or listening to music.

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As well as singing, listening to music appears to benefit mood in people with mild dementia.

This is the conclusion of a new study led by the University of Helsinki, Finland, and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The researchers suggest the study could help improve dementia care and better target the use of music in different stages of dementia.

Lead author Dr. Teppo Särkämö, whose specialisms span cognitive brain research, behavioral science and music research, adds:

“Our findings suggest that musical leisure activities could be easily applied and widely used in dementia care and rehabilitation.”

The research involved 89 pairs of patients with mild to moderate dementia and their caregivers, who were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

In two of the groups, the pairs took part in 10 weeks of regular music coaching – one focusing on singing and the other on music listening. For the third group – the controls – the intervention involved standard care only.

Assessments undertaken 9 months after the interventions had already shown that there were improvements in memory, executive function, orientation and mood in the groups that received musical coaching, compared with the standard care group.

Executive function is like the supervisor of brain processes that helps us focus attention, plan, remember and manage several tasks at the same time.

In the new study, the researchers examined the factors that might influence the mental and emotional effects of the musical activities in order to see who might benefit the most from them.

The team looked at how the severity and origin of the dementia, the age of the patient, their care situation and any previous engagement in musical hobbies might influence the effect of the musical activities.

They found that the most benefit for working memory, executive function and orientation came from singing – especially in patients with mild dementia and those under 80 years of age. And for patients with more advanced forms of dementia, it was music listening that led to the most cognitive benefits.

However, both singing and music listening alleviated depression more, especially in patients with mild, Alzheimer’s-type dementia – compared with standard care.

The researchers were interested to note that the musical background of the patient – that is, whether or not they had hobbies like singing or playing a musical instrument – made no difference to the results.

They say their findings suggest it is important to take into account some of the clinical and personal circumstances and histories of patients with dementia when developing musical programs for their caregivers to use with them.

“Given the increasing global prevalence and burden of dementia and the limited resources in public health care for persons with dementia and their family caregivers,” says Dr. Särkämö, “it is important to find alternative ways to maintain and stimulate cognitive, emotional and social well-being in this population.” And he notes:

Especially stimulating and engaging activities, such as singing, seem to be very promising for maintaining memory functioning in the early stages of dementia.”

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned about another study of older adults that found better memory is linked to physical activity. The researchers observed that older adults who took more steps each day performed better on memory tests than their more sedentary counterparts.