Tony Bennett: When Musical Memory Triumphs Over Alzheimer’s

This past Sunday on “60 Minutes,” Tony Bennett’s wife, Susan, revealed that Tony (95) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago. The entire country may now know that Tony has Alzheimer’s, but Tony himself doesn’t know of his diagnosis, and if he does, it isn’t stopping him from performing. He has continued to produce music and perform in concert with Lady Gaga since 2014. They even released a jazz album titled “Love for Sale” earlier this year.

During “60 Minutes,” Lady Gaga detailed how it was the first time Tony said her name in a long time. “It’s emotional,” she said. “It’s hard to watch somebody change. I think what’s been beautiful about this, and what’s been challenging, is to see how it affects him in some ways but to see how it doesn’t affect his talent. I think he really pushed through something to give the world the gift of knowing that things can change and you can still be magnificent.”

Bennett’s neurologist, Dr. Gayatri Devi, told Anderson Cooper on the “60 Minutes” episode that Bennett’s “musical memory, his ability to be a performer” is “an innate and hard-wired part of his brain.” According to Dr. Devi, “(e)ven though he doesn’t know what the day might be or where his apartment is, he still can sing the whole repertoire of the ‘American Songbook’ and move people.”

Watch the incredibly moving 60 Minutes episode here.

How Does Music and Memory Work? — Understanding the “Mozart Effect”

The “Mozart effect” is the nickname scientists use to describe the way the brain changes after listening to music (particularly classical, but other music has a therapeutic effect, as well). A study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine showed that people experienced improved spatial reasoning skills after listening to music for just 10 minutes. Listening to music has also been shown to activate parts of the brain that have been linked to memory, cognition, and problem-solving. The Mozart Effect is a term that researchers coined back in in 1993, using it to describe how the exposure of children to the music of Mozart was found to help cognitive development in a developing child’s brain.

Using Music to Help Alzheimer’s Patients

Memory care communities around the world also use music therapy to help residents living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. As mentioned, classical music isn’t the only genre that has the power to heal. In fact, a report published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association showed that a structured program of listening to any familiar song can improve the way the brain functions.

Since Alzheimer’s currently has no cure, it’s important to focus on ways to improve a patient’s quality of life. Music offers many benefits for Alzheimer’s patients in varying stages of the disease. These are some things researchers have found with music therapy and Alzheimer’s patients:

  • Offers benefits without drugs: Music therapy improves a patient’s focus, improves their ability to communicate with those close to them, and may lower their dependence on psychiatric drugs.
  • Offers a variety of benefits at each stage of the disease: Patients in the early stages of the disease may benefit from going out dancing or attending a concert. Playing an instrument may be enjoyable for those who once played. Favorite pieces, such as songs played at a wedding, may serve to spark happy memories. Music is also beneficial for those in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, when patients may disconnect from anything happening around them and experience an inability to communicate and connect with others verbally.
  • Offers a visible change: When listening to music, Alzheimer’s patients may perk up and take a renewed interest in their surroundings. Upon hearing music, they might sing, dance, or clap their hands.
  • Improves balance, mood, and encourages exercise and movement: As the disease progresses, playing music may help improve balance while walking. Music can also be used to boost the mood of a person with Alzheimer’s, and soothing music often helps with behavioral issues. In later stages, the same favorite pieces might jog a person’s memory when discussing past events. Music often motivates advanced Alzheimer’s patients to participate in exercise.
  • Stimulates the brain: Researchers believe that music stimulates many parts of the brain at the same time, such as those areas affecting language, mood, and movement, along with the senses of hearing, sight, sound, and touch. The brain stores memories by linking them to familiar songs and the emotions associated with those memories. The effect a song will have on someone can often be determined by a person’s past emotional experience with that song.
  • Increases lung capacity and gives the brain a boost of oxygen: Singing along to songs can increase lung capacity as well as give a boost of oxygen to the brain. Singing and music interventions can even improve immune response.
  • Music encourages communication. Anyone who has worked with or cared for someone living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia knows that verbal communication is not always the most effective. Instead, body language and other types of nonverbal communication are often used when trying to give the person a pleasant and comfortable interaction. Music offers another way to increase social interaction and positive experiences.

For more details on musicians and Alzheimer’s, please see my article about Glen Campbell.

Incorporate Music into Your Caregiving

If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, you can make the effort to use music throughout your day together, whether it is by turning on a favorite playlist to increase energy in the morning or humming a calming tune to encourage relaxation in the evening.

Medicaid Planning for Alzheimer’s and Other Types of Dementia

Do you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia? When it comes to planning for long-term care needs, generally the earlier someone with dementia plans, the better. But it is never too late to begin the process of Long-term Care Planning, also called Lifecare Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection Planning. Medicaid planning can be initiated by an adult child acting as agent under a properly-drafted Power of Attorney, even if the parent is already in a nursing home or receiving other long-term care.

Fairfax Alzheimer’s Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Alzheimer’s Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Alzheimer’s Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Alzheimer’s Planning: 202-587-2797
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