Music is low-stress medicine for your brain

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"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything." - Plato

Music is neurologically special. If your brain were to be scanned while you listened to your favorite music, the screen would light up like a fireworks display - not just the auditory cortex, but areas involved with emotion and memory, language and decision-making, movement and reactions.

Even as dementia erodes one part of the brain, music can still reach those other parts that tap into emotions and memories.

We all know that flashback feeling when a song comes on the radio and takes us back to another time, person or place. Just last weekend, I was listening to the radio while driving and a song came on that reminded me of my brother. I became so emotional I almost had to pull over. This feeling stayed with me all day.

As I was doing research for this article, I came across an organization, Playlist for Life, which is a U.K. music and dementia charity. They use the music of a person's life to keep them connected to themselves and their loved ones throughout their dementia journey.

Playlist for Life has found that music can:

  • Bring back feelings, memories and sometimes even abilities thought to be lost.
  • Reduce the use of heavy drugs and restraints.
  • Manage mood and emotions.
  • Strengthen relationships, reconnect families and support new connections.

One service of their website is helping individuals develop a personal playlist. This could be helpful for professional or private caregivers. Visit playlistforlife.org to learn more. There is no charge; however, they are a nonprofit and could benefit from a donation.

Music is an important component in the programs at Memory Matters. We have music every day - from five-piece bands to solo guitar and banjo players, even violin players.

We also have a high-tech program in place that gives us a choice of hundreds of songs to do sing-alongs. This program also offers karaoke, and we can choose any genre of music from rock 'n' roll to classical.

We dance, we sing and just enjoy the power of music. What always amazes me is that these folks have such compromised memories and yet they know - and sing - the lyrics to most songs!

Psychologists have found that we encode more memories between the ages of 10 and 25 than at any other time of life. So people can start by looking at what musical memories might be lurking in that "memory bump."

Once you have found the right music for an individual, research shows that listening for half an hour before difficult activities or times of stress should lead to a reduced need for psychotropic medication, reduced falls and reduced stress and distress.

My advice is to take some time to just start playing music in the early evening before dinner or before a doctor's appointment. Try headphones, too, and see if there is some improvement in behavior.

Music can be the best medicine.

Karen Doughtie is assistant director of Memory Matters, serving Bluffton and Hilton Head. karen@memory-matters.org www.memory-matters.org

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