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Music and Memory

Most of us have experienced moments when an old song comes on the radio that triggers vivid memories and emotions from our past. The memories may include people we used to know, places we have been, and the emotions tied to that time and place the song takes us back to. What is the neuroscience behind the ability of music to evoke such strong memories of the people and places from our past?

The answer to that question is complex with documentation from a number of studies revealing how the brain is stimulated and memories triggered by music. Studies have found that listen to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including regions responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity. 

The part of the brain that is activated with music is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region right behind the forehead and is one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer’s disease. According to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, “musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s patients because the area of the brain associated with musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.” (Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, 2018)

What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye or recall a specific memory of a time and place. 

In 2012, an initiative was created to reduce the use of psychotropic medications for dementia patients in nursing home settings. The trend of using sedation through medication to control behaviors was no longer acceptable. The expectation became to eliminate or reduce psychotropic medications to the lowest effective dose with periodic review to determine if the medication was still needed.

The focus shifted industry wide to include Assisted Living settings. Non-pharmaceutical measures were to be put into place to handle behaviors with medications shifting to secondary options only if non-pharmaceutical measures failed. Individualized plans and engagement through activities became a focus. With research and the information revealed, music has taken on a bigger role in caring for residents with memory issues. 

Music therapists who work with Alzheimer’s patients describe seeing people “wake up” when the sounds of loved and familiar music fill their heads. Residents after months or even years of not speaking at all, begin to talk again, become more social and seem more engaged by their surroundings. Some Alzheimer’s patients begin to remember names long forgotten, even remember who they are.

Connie Tomaino is one of music therapy’s pioneers. She founded the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function to encourage study of the effects of music on the brain. More than 37 years ago, she walked into a dementia unit carrying her guitar and looked at the patients. “Many were overmedicated. Half of them were catatonic and had feeding tubes. The ones that were agitated had mitts on their hands and were tied to wheelchairs,” she says. “I just started singing ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’ Many of the people who were considered to be catatonic lifted up their heads and looked at me. And the people who were agitated stopped being upset. Most of them started singing the words to the song.” (The Healing Power of Music, 2015)

Tomaino found that even some late-stage Alzheimer’s sufferers could respond to songs meaningful to them. “One woman who was nonverbal — after one month, she started speaking again. She said things like, ‘The kids are coming, I have to get home to make dinner.’ They were memories and words elicited by the songs.” Her advice: If someone you know is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, start associating key songs with family members or important ideas. Later, those songs may trigger that association. (The Healing Power of Music, 2015)

Researchers are finding new ways to use music as part of the treatment of dementia. Music is so much more than an activity to pass the time. Evidence supports that music can be key In positively impacting mood, behaviors, and stimulate memory. 

As we begin to define our way of caring for dementia at Olive Branch Estates, music will become a bigger part or our activities and day to day tools to help redirect behavior, improve moods and stimulate memory for those we care for. I highly encourage you to utilize music as a gift for your loved ones this holiday season!

Heidi Lohre RN

Chef's Corner:
Ryan Schmitt

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving with their families. We had another great turn out here at OBE. It was great to see the residents and family members having a good time.

We will have a Christmas lunch held at noon again this year. Please let us know if you would like to attend.

I wish you all a Happy Holidays!

Poetry by Bob

Listening is a delicate art
A mouth that is shut is the best place to start

With an open mind receptiveness improves
Ideas flow in and fill the grooves

The speakers, we will find, will even flow and glisten
If we will only concentrate and listen

Absolutely no limit to learning
If our ears are open we will fill the yearning

Should we dedicate ourselves to seek the word?
Comments, asides, and even whispers are heard

From children we hear the sound of thrill
They touch the ear with beauty so shrill

The aged voice so low and in muted tone
Tells us of the past and we seem so alone

From the scholar we hear of great detail
His in depth knowledge causes our mind to sail

These and many more are only a start
Yes, yes, listening is a very delicate art

Christmas Pics

Dana Jensen

We are ready for Christmas here at Olive Branch. And the New year is upon us.

Thursday, December 13th Chef Ryan will be doing a Food game at 2:00. We are going to close our eyes, try food and see if we can guess what it is. Please join us for the fun! We will also be making a trip to the Minnesota Arboretum to look at the Christmas lights and maybe a little window shopping to end the visit.

If you have not already, please check out and like our Facebook page. You will find helpful articles and many photos of what we are doing her at OBE.