Music Therapy for Treating Dementia and Stroke Complications

May 20, 2024 at 5:21 p.m.

It may be possible to use music to help older adults improve their quality of life as well as increase their happiness levels. 

Researchers have found that music therapy can help with dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and traumatic brain injuries. Studies suggest that individuals with dementia who receive music therapy have better physical and mental states and lower blood pressure as they age compared with those who don’t. Music therapy can also lead to decreased use of psychotropic drugs to manage symptoms of dementia, such as agitation and wandering.

In patients with Parkinson's disease, the rhythmic nature of music assists in improving gait, balance and coordination. Music therapy has also demonstrated significant benefits for patients with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) by supporting the recovery of speech, cognitive function and emotional regulation.

“Improvements in these areas translate to life beyond therapy,” said Danielle Porter, who is a board-certified music therapist and coordinator at the Brooks Rehabilitation Music Therapy Program in Jacksonville, Florida. “For example, through music therapy individuals may gain the skills they need to care for themselves independently, manage symptoms of disease, re-integrate into the community and even resume work or school.”

Music therapy has emerged as a powerful approach to address the physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of many patients with various neurological conditions. Board-certified music therapists utilize personalized therapeutic interventions to improve motor skills, communication and cognitive function. “We frequently co-treat with physical, occupational and speech therapists at our hospital locations where our focus is on repetition, intensity and saliency to stimulate neuroplasticity,” said Porter. “Many of our colleagues report that their patients tolerate therapy better and can often reach their goals faster with the addition of music therapy.”

This type of therapy is tailored to the specific needs and preferences of each individual. Therapies may include movement, instrument playing, songwriting or guided listening, which are all designed to stimulate brain and body function and improve overall quality of life. Brooks Rehabilitation has a Parkinson's Choir, a group of individuals with Parkinson’s utilizing music therapy to overcome challenges associated with the disease.

Music therapy uses a wide range of music experiences to meet the specific goals of older adults with varying needs. Qualified music therapists create intervention plans for individuals. The plans include creating, singing, moving to, or listening to music to improve mental and physical health outcomes. There are four main approaches to music therapy (receptive, recreational, compositional, and improvisational). Each method focuses on a different way an individual can get involved. 

Whether it's singing in a choir, playing the living room piano, joining in hymns at church, or just whistling along with the radio, a new poll finds that nearly all older adults report that music brings them far more than just entertainment. Researchers found that 75% of people age 50 to 80 reported that music helps them relieve stress or relax and 65% said it helps their mental health or mood.  

According to the new results from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging, 60% reported that they get energized or motivated by music. Virtually all (98%) said they benefit in at least one health-related way from engaging with music. In addition, 41% reported that music is very important to them, with another 48% saying it's somewhat important. "Music has the power to bring joy and meaning to life. It is woven into the very fabric of existence for all of humankind," said Dr. Joel Howell, who is a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. 

Music also has tangible effects on a variety of health-related ailments, including lowering blood pressure. Many older adults reported making music with other people at least occasionally, whether by singing or playing an instrument. In all, 8% said they have sung in a choir or other organized group at least a few times in the past year. About 8% of all older adults said they play an instrument with other people at least occasionally. Overall, 46% of older adults reported singing at least a few times a week, and 17% said they play a musical instrument at least a few times a year.

Most respondents reported listening to music, with 85% saying they listen to it at least a few times a week. A total of 80% said they've watched musical performances on television or the internet at least a few times in the past year, and 41% saying they had attended live musical performances in person at least a few times in the past year. The poll report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey conducted at the University of Chicago and administered online and via phone in July and August 2023 among 2,657 adults aged 50 to 80. 

The poll shows other differences between groups in music listening habits and health impacts. Those who said their physical health is fair or poor, and those who say they often feel isolated, were less likely to listen to music every day. Black older adults were more likely than others to have sung in a choir in the past year, and Black and Hispanic older adults were more likely to report that music is very important to them. 

With the rising concern about the health effects of loneliness and social isolation among Americans in general, and especially among older adults, the power of music to connect people and support healthy aging should not be underestimated, according to music therapists. 

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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