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Singing boosts brain activity in Alzheimer’s patients, scientists say

Compared to those who just listened to care home music sessions, those taking part show markedly improved cognition

A US study has shown that singing in group music sessions significantly improves the cognitive abilities of moderate to severe dementia sufferers.

Working in a care home over a period of four months, scientists observed patients led through a series of familiar songs. Meeting three times a week, half the group were encouraged to take part in the singing while the other half just listened.

The difference between the two groups was stark, according to a presentation given on Saturday at a Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

In an abstract explaining the study, lead author Linda Maguire writes: “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Before and after the musical treatment period, the patients took tests measuring their cognitive ability and life satisfaction. Researchers found that while the singing and listening groups rated similarly at the start of the study, four months later the singers “scored significantly better than the listeners” in both tests.

“These data show that participation in an active singing program for an extended period of time can improve cognition in patients with moderate to severe dementia,” Ms Maguire said.

According to reports in the Guardian, the study was presented in San Diego by Ms Maguire’s colleague Dr Jane Flinn, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Virginia.

Ms Maguire chose songs that the patients would be familiar with, Dr Flinn said, including classics such as The Sound of Music, When You Wish Upon a Star and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Dr Flinn said: “Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful. The message is: don't give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy and engaging.”

The UK Alzheimer's Society said it regularly holds group singing sessions nationwide.

“There is much anecdotal evidence that the groups have real benefits for people with dementia,” a spokesperson told the newspaper. “Even when many memories are hard to retrieve, music can sometimes still be recalled, if only for a short while. The sessions help people with dementia communicate, improving their mood and leaving them feeling good about themselves.”

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America devotes a section of its website to education and care through music. It says: “When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.”

It advises that songs from a dementia-sufferer’s young adult years – 18 to 25 – are most likely to elicit a positive response. “As individuals progress into late-stage dementia, music from their childhood, such as folk songs, work well,” the foundation said. “Singing these songs in the language in which they were learned sparks the greatest involvement.”