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For Dementia Patients, A Dose of Music

Becky Wellman singing with patients at a music therapy session.
Brent Holmes

Becky Wellman singing with patients at a music therapy session.

Music is powerful.

It can make us laugh and cry, rejoice and regret. It can take us back in time. And it can heal.

For those reasons, it’s an ideal form of therapy.

At the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, it’s a staple for patients with dementia. 

“There is a variety of ways we can address the symptoms that occur in Alzheimer’s Disease and other neurodegenerative disorders,” Dr. Dylan Wint, a neurologist with Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Wint said not every treatment works for every patient, but it is important to try different kinds of therapies. 

“We feel it’s important to have in our armamentarium as many potential methods as possible so that we have the greatest chance of reaching the largest number of people,” he said.

Alzheimer's disease is probably the most well-known form of dementia, but it can also be caused by other progressive cognitive disorders. It can also be caused by strokes or toxins in the brain.

Wint explained that dementia is the loss of connections or pathways in the brain. Multiple studies have shown that music can restore those connections. 

“What we think may be happening with music therapy is that when there are certain pathways that are disrupted that may not be traversed by typical verbal communication or visual-spatial communication that perhaps the music – the structure, the tonality, the emotionality of music – may be able to bridge some of those pathways that aren’t accessible by other methods,” he said.

Dr. Becky Wellman leads the music therapy program at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. She said music therapy works because of our connection to music.

“The benefits really come from the innate properties of music that come to all of us,” she said.

Wellman said that almost everyone has a lifetime connection to music that often starts as babies when our parents sing lullabies to us. But music is often connected to time periods or special life events like weddings or first dates. 

“We as music therapists can use that music to capture those memories and bring them back to the surface to recapture that for them,” she said.

Wellman said she'll talk to caregivers about what music the patient might like or a genre they enjoyed. But when it comes to actually playing music, she said live music is better than something that is recorded.

“The benefits of live music are huge," she said. "I can change the tempo. I can change the pace. I can change the key. Sometimes even just that much, bringing it down a third or bringing it up a third, changes their interaction. They feel like they can sing along.”

Although, if a patient really connects to a particular artist Wellman will use recorded pieces of music or videos to help connect with them.

“I’ll be honest, I can’t play like Jimi Hendrix," she admitted jokingly.

Wellman said music is personal, helping patients find that personal connection and feel like themselves again is what music therapy is about. 

Dr. Dylan Wint, neurologist, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health; Dr. Becky Wellman, music therapist, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health/Photo credit: Brent Holmes


Dylan Wint, neurologist, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health; Becky Wellman, music therapist, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.