Music therapy might also improve emotional well-being among those with dementia, researchers found. But they didn’t find any benefits when it came to cognition and behavioral issues such as agitation or aggression, according to the report in the Cochrane Library journal.
Although the benefits of music therapy weren’t large, small improvements in cases where a patient was expected to decline are important to patients and their caregivers, said study leader Jenny van der Steen, a researcher with the department of public health and primary care at Leiden University Medical Center.
“These outcomes are closely linked to quality of life and may be more relevant than improving or delaying decline in cognition for the patients under study, mostly nursing home patients,” van der Steen said in an email.
For the analysis, van der Steen and colleagues pooled data from 21 smaller randomized trials involving a total of 1097 patients. Patients in the trials received either music-based therapies that involved at least five sessions, or usual care, or some other activity with or without music.
Participants in the studies had dementia of varying degrees of severity and the majority were residents in institutions. Seven of the studies provided individual music therapy, while the others delivered the intervention in a group setting.
The new findings could have a significant impact on dementia patients, said Dr. Alexander Pantelyat, an assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine.
“The alternative to these behavioral interventions is drugs with black box warning labels saying that they increase the risk of death,” Pantelyat said, adding that the findings were actionable even though the number of studies was low.
It’s not surprising that music therapy could help those with dementia, Pantelyat said. “It’s known that areas that process music in the brain overlap with the emotional areas and those that process language,” he said. “If a song from somebody’s youth is played, it’s possible it will bring back memories associated with the first time they heard it.”
The new findings highlight the need for more studies involving larger groups of patients, said Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
Bonakdarpour believes that music therapy can also be used to improve social interactions. “We are doing some interventions here to see if it can improve interactions between patients and caregivers,” he said. “We have preliminary data that suggests it helps.”
Bonakdarpour also believes that music therapy might allow some patients to skip powerful and risky medications.
By Linda Carroll