Alzheimer’s, dementia and other memory issues affect millions of older Americans. At Brandermill Woods, we know that memory care is about more than just medication and assistance with personal needs. It’s about creating an engaging and stimulating atmosphere for our residents.
To achieve this, we stay on top of the research into the science behind how the brain works, and we use the findings to help the people in our community reconnect to the special moments in their lives. As part of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, we’re exploring how the senses of smell and sound—the strongest senses we have for recall—have a positive effect on seniors in need of memory care.
The Sound of Music
There are numerous stories about Alzheimer’s patients who couldn’t remember the names of their family members, but managed to sing along to the Frank Sinatra’s entire collection of greatest hits, even if they hadn’t heard the songs in decades.
It’s been proven that structured use of music can have lasting benefits for people with Alzheimer’s. For instance, instrumental music has demonstrated a lower level of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, leading to a significant reduction in anxiety.
Additionally, people with Alzheimer’s will retain their musical aptitude skills well after other abilities have been lost, so music is often an effective way to connect. Further, certain musical pieces can trigger salient autobiographical memories that patients have held on to for up to two months.
Researchers have a few theories as to why the effects of music is so profound. One idea is that music evokes emotions that bring memories. Think back to a special dance, a powerful moment in a musical, or a pivotal scene in a movie. If you can remember the song that was playing at the time, it’s easier to recollect how you felt at that moment.
Another consideration is that music is engaging. Whether the patient is singing and dancing along, or just tapping a finger, music sparks activity in the brain and activates the visual areas.
The Nose Knows
As for the sense of smell, your nose knows there’s a reason real estate agents bake chocolate chip cookies before an open house. Smelling the sweet scent of home cooking can evoke a sense of security, happy memories, and comfort—and make you feel like you are already at home.
The olfactory bulb (how you smell) starts in the nose has direct connections to the amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for processing emotion) and the hippocampus (the region responsible for memory and cognition).
Neuroscientists have suggested that this close physical connection may explain why our brains learn to associate smells with certain memories. This is especially true for early memories, because children are able to smell and associate feelings with a smell before they are able to verbalize those feelings.