New Research: This Soothing Activity May Reduce Alzheimer’s Symptoms, Say Neuroscientists

Chances are, you already do it for pleasure. Now research says it may stimulate beneficial areas of the human brain.

If you’ve ever sat with a loved one in the late stage of their life and seen their eyes light up when an old song comes on, this could be considered evidence of one powerful way music can impact our minds and emotions.

A recent systematic review published in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy now suggests that music may play a role in strengthening and preserving important brain functions, including for patients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Four neuroscience researchers in Lebanon and France collaborated to evaluate eight past studies on Alzheimer’s disease. They found that compared to the control groups, Alzheimer’s patients who underwent music therapy experienced a measured improvement in cognitive function. This was true in cases when the participants listened to music, but most of all if they were making music.

Dr. Patrick Porter, PhD, a neuroscience expert, suggests the study may lend even wider implications about the power of music to ward off dementia-related illnesses.

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What happens to your brain when you listen to music

This isn’t the first time music has been linked to an improvement in the brain’s thinking and memory mechanisms. Dr. Porter says music “has been recognized not just as an emotional outlet, but also as a potential enhancer of cognitive functions. Various studies have illuminated how music might positively influence brain health.”

These studies include:

  • a 2017 study that showed musical training can enhance cognitive functions such as auditory processing, working memory, and attention
  • a 2014 study finding that the auditory system is interconnected with brain regions related to movement, emotion, and memory
  • a 2019 study that noted how music can evoke memory and reflection to benefit cognitive health

Dr. Porter sheds light on how music can scientifically engage brain function: “When we listen to music, our brains are a flurry of activity,” he explains. “Music processing occurs in several brain regions, including the temporal lobes, frontal lobes, and the cerebellum. The rhythm and beat often engage areas responsible for motor skills. The melody and harmonies stimulate areas related to emotional processing. And the lyrics, if present, tap into language processing centers.”

If that’s not intriguing enough, Dr. Porter suggests there’s more: “On top of that, familiar music can trigger the hippocampus, which is associated with memory. Thus, music can be a multi-sensory experience for the brain, making it an ideal stimulus for cognitive engagement.”

Does the type of music matter?

Not every genre of music has been shown to spark this brain activity, but Dr. Porter says one type strikes the strongest cognitive chord: Tunes that are “meaningful and resonant to the individual,” Dr. Porter says. “This suggests that when considering music as a form of therapy or cognitive exercise, it’s vital to curate playlists or select music that holds emotional or nostalgic value for the listener. It highlights the deep connection between our memories, emotions, and overall cognitive health.”

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How to incorporate “brain fitness” into your daily life

Music therapy for memory is one type of brain fitness. “Brain fitness refers to the state of optimal cognitive function, flexibility, and overall brain health,” Dr. Porter explains. “Much like we exercise our bodies to keep them fit and agile, our brains need regular workouts to maintain their health and vitality. This can be achieved through various mental exercises and activities that challenge and stimulate the brain.” Passively listening to music might be as useful brain exercises to get areas of your brain working that perhaps haven’t been invited to fire for awhile.

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Listening to music can be an easy way to incorporate brain fitness into your daily life. Dr. Porter also says engaging in puzzles, learning a new skill, and meditating can be other simple ways to partake in brain fitness and decrease your risk of cognitive decline. “Meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, has been linked to enhanced cognitive functions and reduced stress,” says Dr. Porter.

He also points out how taking your body to the gym will also take your mind to the gym as well: Exercise promotes blood flow to the brain, which is crucial for cognitive health. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants, such as the Mediterranean diet or one specific berry, can also reduce the risk.

So next time you’re cooking up one of these 10 Delicious Mediterranean Recipes, maybe it couldn’t hurt to turn on some music in the background. Brain-healthy? Possibly. Pleasurable? Most definitely.

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.