A number of years ago, I held a staff position at the Alexian Village retirement facility in Brown Deer, Wisconsin.
I had been asked to introduce some nontraditional therapies with the hope that it could slow the progress of or prevent dementia.
I knew that the practice of music stimulates the brain in unique ways, so with the help of some far-thinking staff members we enlisted the world recognized Milwaukee Conservatory of Music to teach about 20 residents how to read music and play a musical instrument.
The cognitive function of the participants was measured before the program began and then every three months after. We all were amazed at the results.
At the beginning of the program, all the participants had mild to moderate deficits in memory and cognition. After only three months most were normal, and after six months all participants had memory and cognition of someone 20 years younger.
Unfortunately, at that time, the clinical value of this discovery was not appreciated by the medical journals I submitted the results to and was never published. Since that time other researchers have published numerous studies showing that music therapy positively affects dementia.
One recent study on dementia and music therapy was published in the medical journal "Aging and Mental Health." This study was a meta-analysis.
A meta-analysis is the result of combining the data from many smaller studies to see trends that would not be obvious in a small study. In this meta-analysis, 330 participants, with an average age of 81, who all had been diagnosed with dementia were treated with different types of music therapy.
What was discovered is that there was a statistically significant improvement in global cognition with simply listening to music.
Unfortunately, none of the participants in any of these studies achieved the gains in cognitive function that I saw in the participants at the Alexian Village. This may be because, to date, the intensity of the music program at the Alexian Village has never been replicated in any medical studies.
The Alexian Village program through the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music had spectacular results probably because it was intense and mentally challenging.
Participants had lessons twice per week and were expected to practice at least one hour per day on their own … and they practiced even harder.
At the end of the program, this group of residents toured the Milwaukee area giving concerts and even were included on a CD of classical music produced by the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music.
Throughout history music has exerted an almost mystical effect on us. It creates and triggers thoughts and feelings, stimulating and strengthening memory and cognition.
Music has been shown that it retrains how the brain thinks.
In my opinion, the active study of music may both prevent and correct many of the deficits associated with dementia. It is low-cost and free of the negative side effects of medications. It could significantly reduce the multibillion-dollar medical cost of dementia.
• Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.