I bet you’ve had this experience—you’re driving somewhere and a song from 20 or 30 years ago comes on the radio…and you remember every word. Not only that, it brings to mind a host of great memories, too.

Music therapists at Beth Abraham Health Services in the Bronx are using old-time tunes in this way to help people with dementia sharpen their memories. I called Concetta M. Tomaino, DA, director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF) to learn more—including how families of dementia patients might be able to use this technique on their own.

Musical Memories

Dr. Tomaino told me that music can serve as a gateway into the brain that actually stimulates its function. In one study at the University of California at Irvine, researchers found that listening to Mozart helped Alzheimer’s patients improve their scores on memory tests. And, in a study conducted by Dr. Tomaino and her colleagues and published in Music and Medicine, 45 patients with mid- to late-stage dementia who participated in a music-based reminiscence program three times a week for 10 months boosted their scores on cognitive function tests by 50%. Dr. Tomaino told me that after several sessions, one patient even recognized his wife for the first time in many months.

Music can reach people who are unreachable by other means, says Dr. Tomaino. Often an Alzheimer’s patient who cannot recall a close family member’s name is able to summon the words of a favorite old song and recapture seemingly lost memories. Sometimes therapists stop singing and patients fill in the words…and some are even able to learn new songs. At Beth Abraham, music therapists most commonly use music from patients’ teen years and early 20s, Dr. Tomaino told me, finding that listening to these familiar tunes can help them to…

• Improve memory and cognitive skills.

• Increase attention, motivation, focus and awareness of self and others.

• Reduce agitation.

• Perform daily activities such as eating, toileting and bathing.

Use an iPod and Try It Yourself

Aging patients don’t need formal music therapy to reap benefits from listening to music from the past. The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function’s international Music and Memory program provides custom-tailored playlists for people who have memory impairment. (People must provide their own MP3 player or iPod.) Favorites from the 1940s, for example, that you might want on your list include  “Unforgettable,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Que Sera, Sera.”

You can play old-time music as often as your loved one seems to enjoy it—but whatever type of music you choose and however you play it, try to listen together. Even fleetingly, you can recapture a sense of closeness by singing together, holding hands, dancing or just quietly listening to the music and enjoying the memories it unlocks.