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The Incredible Power of Music
Favorite songs from long ago awaken people with dementia
Welcome back to Age Wise, exploring the science of improving physical health and mental wellness at every stage of life. And welcome to another big bunch of new subscribers. I hope you find this interesting and helpful.
If I worry about any aspect of aging—and I don’t waste much time doing so because fear of aging makes us age faster—dementia tops my list. So I was incredibly inspired by a discovery that led to this story…
When you think of old songs that have gotten stuck in your head, what’s the first one that comes to mind? I’m guessing it didn’t take you long. Hotel California is one I can never get out of my noggin. I can I “hear” every word, every harmony, every guitar lick.
A new study demonstrates that favorite songs from the past are so powerful they can be a bridge to communicate with dementia patients who’ve largely or totally lost their ability to use their words. From the researchers:
When a live ensemble played and sang music popular long ago, dementia patients who otherwise weren’t communicative joined in, shaking a tambourine, dancing and even singing along. Afterward, and compared to a control group, they were in better moods, less agitated, and more socially engaged, a conclusion based in part on eye contact they made with others.
My story on Medium (link above) explains what happens in the mind of a person with dementia listing to favorite old tunes, and offers other examples of this amazing phenomenon, including this gem: Tony Bennett’s live performance with Lady Gaga in 2021, when he was deep into a battle with Alzheimer’s disease and, incredibly, appeared utterly transformed on stage. This story will prove enlightening for anyone who has a loved one suffering early or late stages of dementia.
What readers say
How the story is resonating:
I've always felt that the songs we listen to as teenagers stay with us forever. I'm a 70-year-old musician and have played a lot of classic rock songs, and feel it is inevitable as people my age increasingly wind up in assisted living, I will be performing at such places and jumpstarting old memories. —Dan Reich
I used to visit my parents at a retirement community in Western New Jersey. I think this incident occurred around 2014, when I was playing the piano in the cafeteria during dinner.
There was a resident who had fairly advanced dementia. She had been in a depressed funk for awhile, and people said she had barely spoken for almost 3 months. Turns out she had been a rather accomplished amateur opera singer.
I started playing "Over the Rainbow," and suddenly we all look around to hear this soaring soprano It was this same depressed woman, who now was smiling, looking almost beatific, flawlessly singing the words of the song, in a beautiful voice. —Don Salmon
Will this still be applicable in a world where every single musical piece is a few tap away? We grew up with radio and limited curated playlists. Will any song have time to crystallise any strong memory and emotions? In a world of infinite cakes, will we reminisce to the smell of Madeleines? — Chris M
What You Do While You Sit Affects Dementia Risk
Not a big surprise, but the job of science is to confirm or disprove things we might think. In this case: “Sedentary behaviors while sitting for extended periods of time, such as watching TV, are associated with an increased risk of dementia in older adults. However, older adults who spent time performing cognitively stimulating tasks, such as using a computer or reading, while sitting had lower dementia risks.” My bet is the findings woud apply to all adults (hence that’s my headline on this one), but that wasn’t studied in this case. Oh, and: Don’t sit too much!
—Via Neuroscience News
Don’t Wear Your Genes Like a Death Sentence
No big surprise, but perhaps further motivation to get off your butt: A new study finds "even if you aren't likely to live long based on your genes, you can still extend your lifespan by engaging in positive lifestyle behaviors such as regular exercise and sitting less." [Me: It will extend your physical and mental healthspan, too.]
—Via UC San Diego
From the archives
One Last Thought
“While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life.”
—Sandra Day O’Connor
I hope you found something useful in this newsletter, and I look forward to sharing new insights with you next time. Consider forwarding this to a friend, and I won’t complain if you buy me a cup of coffee.