Personalized music playlists may bring joy to patients with dementia by rekindling memories of childhood and happy moments. This is because music can activate parts of the brain not affected by dementia, experts said.

Given the lack of drugs designed to treat dementia, “our big interest is in non-pharmaceutical approaches.” Andy Lowndes, deputy chair of the Playlist for Life charity based in Glasgow, Scotland, told Reuters Health through the phone.

The charity has trained over 4,650 health care staff to use music as an alternative method for treating dementia. Additionally, the charity’s volunteers are estimated to have reached more than 21,000 people since 2015.

Through the charity’s Music Detective program, the charity encourages families to talk to their relatives in order to find out which pieces of music trigger happy memories for them. Ideally, personalized playlists would be compiled before family members develop dementia.

Founded in 2013, Playlist for Life was established by Sally Magnusson, a Scottish broadcaster, after her mother developed dementia. Magnusson then found that playing music her mother was familiar with sparked memories and brought her joy, so she created the charity in order to share the technique with others.

“Although her mother had almost lost the ability to use words, whenever Sally would sing the soundtrack of her life, her mother would still be able to sing the song from start to finish and harmonize beautifully,” Lowndes said in a presentation earlier this year at the Edinburgh Science Festival. “Fragments of memories were connected to those personally meaningful songs.”

While Playlist for Life volunteers aren’t certified music therapists, they do adhere to the 5th edition of the Gerdner protocol, which was developed at Stanford University. They also suggest timing the sessions 30 minutes before patients with dementia have to do difficult activities, such as bathing.

To create a playlist, Lowndes recommended a 3-step process:

First, check the top songs from when the person was between the ages of 10 and 30 as this is when many milestone memories are created. Playlist for Life created a playlist which lists the 100 most popular songs each year between 1915-2015 called “100 Years: A Century of Song.” You can access it here.

Second, add “Inheritance” tracks. These are songs from childhood memories or songs contributed by best friends and former boyfriends or girlfriends.

“One of the songs on my playlist comes from My Fair Lady, which my father would put on every Sunday to see who would wash dishes to not listen to the music,” Lowndes shared with a chuckle.

Third, add “identity” tracks. These are songs that connect with heritage, nationality, and ethnicity. Take, for example, Lowndes hails from Glasgow and wants to remember that heritage, so he added songs that he’d heard as a child while attending church.

“People with dementia have emotions that are alive and can be retrieved, even in late stages, which can counteract the feeling that dementia destroys personality and erases what makes an individual unique,” Antonio Cherubini from the National Institute of Rest and Care for the Elderly in Ancona, Italy said.

“The majority of patients develop behavioral disturbances, not only agitation and challenging behaviors, but also apathy and depression,” Cherubini told Reuters Health through email. “Drugs aren’t very effective at treating these and have side effects, so non-drug therapies that are effective should be evaluated and implemented.”

Dementia Dementia is a disease mostly characterized by memory loss. Playlist for Life aims to improve quality of life for dementia patients by providing personalized playlists designed to bring joy into the patients' lives and hopefully, rekindle happy memories. Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay