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Quick–don’t look.  What’s on your iPod playlist?  If you’re like most of us, your playlist consists of a combination of new and old, classic hits and the latest chart-toppers.

But if you’re a senior in Denver, perhaps you have Fred Astaire or Judy Garland, or many of the other singers whose musicals you grew up with at the Paramount Theatre.  Perhaps you spent your time at the Bonfils Theatre on Colfax Avenue, listening to the music of Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, and other Broadway favorites.

The music you listened to in your youth may be the key to healthy memory, or even returning cognitive functioning to dementia and Alzheimers’ patients.

Social worker Dan Cohen knows a lot about playlists.  He’s been creating them for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients with amazing results.  Cohen is the subject of a new documentary called Alive Inside, which premiered April 18, 2012 to a sold-out house at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.

Buzz about the movie is coming to a fever-pitch, due in part to a viral video about Henry, one his elderly patients.

“He is able to actually answer questions and speak about his youth, and this is sort of the magic of music that’s familiar for those with dementia,” Cohen says. “Even though Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia will ravage many parts of the brain, long-term memory of music from when one was young remains very often. So if you tap that, you really get that kind of awakening response. It’s pretty exciting to see.”

As Dr. Oliver Sacks, of Awakenings fame, states in that same viral video, “The effects of this doesn’t stop when the headphones are taken off.  Henry, normally mute and virtually unable to answer the simplest yes or no questions, is quite voluble.”

Cohen is Executive Director of Music and Memory, a non-profit organization that helps individuals and elder care facilities implement patient-specific music therapy programs with iPod playlists designed to stimulate memory and recall.

Research shows that music is good for the brain.  An article in Psychology Today states:

Musicians are commonly studied models for neural plasticity, which refers to the ability of learning experiences to change the brain chemically and physically. Musicians have more brain grey matter volume in areas that are important for playing an instrument and in the auditory cortex, which processes all kinds of sound. Of course, the effects of music training are most robust for processing of music. But benefit transfers to speech, language, emotion, and general auditory processing.

Incorporating music into your daily routine keeps the mind vigorous, regardless of your age.  However, whether you’re providing senior care in Denver or just designing a playlist for  a friend or loved one, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

  1. Personalize the playlist: What kind of music do they like? Jazz?  Classical?  Sinatra? The key to success with setting up an iPod for someone else is to learn what music they really enjoy.  This will ensure the iPod gets used, instead of just sitting in a drawer somewhere.
  2. Go Straight to the Top:  Once you’ve determined their favorite music, check out the Popularity category in iTunes.  Choose songs that are downloaded often, as they are more likely to strike a chord and trigger memories.  It is better to start with a variety of artists, maybe five songs from each, than to choose several songs from just a handful of artists.
  3. Keep It Simple: You don’t have to go with the top-of-the-line, cutting edge model of iPod or MP3 player.  Instead, choose a model that is easy to use and will not complicate the process.  This is about the music, not the machinery.
  4. Always Improve: It’s not enough to create a great playlist, load the player, and leave it at that.  Review the list after a few days, find out what works, what doesn’t, and what can be added.  Keep it stimulating and fresh, intertwining new songs into the favorites over time.
  5. Ask for Help: Music and Memory has several how-to guides on setting up iPods for family and friends, or for a friend living independently.

Music can be a vital tool in healthy aging and maintaining excellent cognitive functions throughout life.  Not only that, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, too!

For more tips on senior living and long term senior health, contact us.