Fact or Myth: Singing Helps Dementia?

This is FACT.

Research has shown that singing is good for the brain. At 16 weeks, the auditory system of our brains is the first to be fully developed. We are musically receptive before anything else, and when it comes to dementia-related memory breakdown, our musical receptivity is also the last to go.

Memory recall is stunted in dementia patients, but music is much easier than memories to remember, which fosters self-confidence in patients, and also reaches the impaired parts of the brain that other therapies can no longer access. Essentially, singing helps to unlock the persevered memory for song and music in our brains.

According to Professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist and academic who has made a study of music in dementia care, ‘We tend to remain contactable as musical beings on some level right up to the very end of life.”

Two New Studies Validate Singing for Dementia 

Grandmother and granddaughter with microphone

A new study published December 2015 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that singing can help improve cognitive function and mood in dementia sufferers. For 16 weeks, 89 patients with mild to moderate dementia either took singing lessons, listened to songs they knew, or received standard care from their caregivers. Those who sang experienced improved memory, thinking skills, and ability to find their way around. Benefit was especially significant among those with mild dementia.

Dementia patients who listened to familiar songs enjoyed the same improvements but only if they already had advanced dementia. And singing and listening both seemed to help reduce depression, particularly among patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease. And it didn’t matter whether patients were musically experienced or not, as the benefit reached all regardless of talent level.

Study leader Teppo Sarkamo, of the University of Helsinki, says:

“Our findings suggest that musical leisure activities could be easily applied and widely used in dementia care and rehabilitation. Especially stimulating and engaging activities, such as singing, seem to be very promising for maintaining memory functioning in the early stages of dementia.”

A separate study presented Dec 4th 2015 at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology in London suggest that group singing helps dementia patients cope with their diagnosis. Seventeen heterosexual couples with one partner with dementia engaged in group singing. They reported benefits, including the pleasure of singing, feeling an enhanced sense of well-being from the friendship and social life of singing as part of a group, and a greater sense of partnership with their spouse as they took part in the activity together. For dementia patients, the biggest benefit was seen in learning and performing new songs. Patients described feeling more confident and enjoying a sense of identity apart from their diagnosis.

Researcher Shreena Unadkat from Salomons Centre, Canterbury Christ Church University, explains: “Singing groups can provide couples with an opportunity to take part in an activity on an equal basis; something which can be difficult when one partner is the lead carer in outside life. Additionally, couples who learnt or performed new materials reported the greatest benefits, which is interesting considering many dementia therapies are based on reminiscence. This understanding may have implications for psychological therapists’ involvement in dementia care.”