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Have you ever found yourself singing along to all of the lyrics of a song you knew in high school but can’t remember what someone told you last week? Well, there may be a scientific basis for this amazing recall.

A research team from the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, led by Andrew Budson, associate director for research at the center, notes that music is filled with emotional content, providing some of the most powerful memories we have. He also emphasizes that music is stored as procedural memory, which is laden with repetition and routine.

So, when we hear music that we learned between the ages of 13 and 25, our brains are emotionally stimulated to become more aware.

Early research supports the value of music therapy in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Laura Mosqueda, Director of Geriatrics at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, describes this “awakening” by pointing to the many areas of the brain that music affects which, in turn, may not have been damaged by this disease.

Dementias typically result in impaired speech or an inability to understand words, both requiring mental processing or cognitive function that is lost in Alzheimer’s. This loss causes agitation and frustration between those affected and their loved ones.

Music requires neither function but helps to smooth the rough edges by alleviating symptoms. When listening to or singing songs from the past, patients are known to be calmer, more social, and for some, can even improve their ability to communicate with others.

So many of the aging populations are experiencing depression, anxiety, and agitation as they lose grip of their ability to recall their past life, relationships, and experiences. The question “who will I be when I don’t know who I am” lives with them during endless days in long term care facilities or at home with exhausted caregivers who try their best to engage their loved ones.

But, despite all efforts, those with dementia lack meaning, choice, social interaction and more. And, worse yet, in facilities, they no longer enjoy familiar surroundings and faces…or their favorite music.

Many research studies point to the value of music therapy, but according to Jeff Anderson, MD, author of one of these studies and an associate professor of radiology at University of Utah Health, rigorous science has not been able to back up how and why it might work.

However, there is a bright light from one of his studies. When patients with Alzheimer’s-related dementia listened to a personalized playlist (one with specific meaning to that individual) that brought back music they enjoyed at a much earlier stage in life, MRI scans showed functional connectivity even after the music had finished playing. According to Dr. Anderson, “We don’t know how long this effect lasts, but music may do more than just stimulate the attention network. It may be able to get different regions of the brain to talk to one another. Music may be like a trigger stimulating the brain.”

A moving example of one organization’s work with music therapy went viral with over 11 million views worldwide in a six minute YouTube video. Henry, who had had dementia for a decade, was uncommunicative and withdrawn, amazingly came alive when provided with an iPod and headset with his favorite music. Featured in the 2014  Alive Inside documentary, this moving story hopes to build support for personalized music as the gold standard for long term care.

Music and Memory, a non-profit launched in 2010, brings iPods and personalized digital music and headsets to nursing homes, family care givers and at-home organizations around the country. Especially valuable, this very individualized approach gives a boost to the hearing-impaired patient who has trouble connecting with sound in a typical room-sized music therapy session.

So, rather than each facility or agency billing thousands of dollars a month for pharmaceuticals that essentially numb the remaining brain function, will turning to music that once gave each of us so much joy re-ignite that spirit within us?

Would you rather be handed an iPod and headset or a med-cup with crushed pills and applesauce? I know what I would choose. Give me some Elvis or Everly Brothers, please.

And, it’s inexpensive. Refurbished iPod shuffles cost about $49…

And, if you have the time, here is another experience to savor

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