Editor’s Note: Music as Medicine
Perhaps you’ve seen it—a YouTube video of a woman seemingly lost to Alzheimer’s disease who comes to life in an instant. A former ballerina, Marta Cinta González Saldaña sits lifeless in a chair until, through earphones, she hears the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake soar. She signals for the music to be turned up. The light of recognition is clear in her eyes, even before her hands—her swan wings—begin to flutter, and she’s moved to tears by the memories stored in her body and mind. Just as her muscle memory directs her ballet arms, her brain responds to music she may not have heard in years. The video was posted by Música Para Despertar (Music to Awaken)—an organization in Spain dedicated to sharing awareness about the importance of music for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s far from an isolated experience. I saw the phenomenon in my own family when my father, who’d begun to suffer from dementia, brightened and became engaged whenever there was a musical performance at his assisted living facility. When the guest performer put a microphone in my father’s frail hands, my father belted out the songs of his youth—tapping his feet, a twinkle in his eye, and an uncommon sense of joy nearly palpable. For an hour, he’d sing along to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, never missing a lyric.
YouTube boasts numerous videos illustrating the power of music to reach people who otherwise may seem unreachable, though none, perhaps, represent so dramatic a transformation as that of Marta. But visitors to the website of Music for Dementia (www.musicfordementia.org.uk)—which advocates for access to music as part of the treatment of all people with dementia and awareness by caregivers and health care providers—can watch a film, The Power of Music for People With Dementia, which features extraordinary joyful stories of moments powered by music, including a video of an 81-year-old composer with dementia conducting a BBC orchestra.
Watch the videos and you’ll need no proof, no research, to see that music is profoundly helpful for people with dementia. But if you want the proof, contributor Jennifer Van Pelt looks at the research in this issue’s cover story, explaining the mechanisms by which music soothes and restores memory.
Also in this issue you’ll find articles about the role of menopause in brain health, emergency technology, the association between hearing loss and loss of physical function, speech therapy for older adults, social isolation, and a surprising contributor to better sleep—the Mediterranean diet.
— Kate Jackson