Music’s ability to soothe the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s has been known for years.
Now, a new BBC website aims to help by connecting dementia patients with the songs they love.
Eventually, it’s hoped the site will build a database of music that’s effective at triggering memories.
“Music can have such a powerful effect,” said Snow Patrol star Gary Lightbody, whose father suffers from dementia.
“It fires all sorts of things in the brain much more immediately than anything else can, whether it be pictures or old home movies or conversations.
“Music can somehow take you to a place of your youth, or an important part of your life you may not otherwise have access to.”
Beyond that, music therapy has been shown to alleviate depression, anxiety, hallucinations and mobility problems in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.
Yet research shows only 5% of care homes in the UK provide good quality music programmes.
That equates to “30 seconds per week per person with dementia”, according to research from the International Longevity Centre.
That’s one of the reasons why the charity Playlist for Life has collaborated with the BBC on the Music Memories website.
The site – which launches on Friday as part of BBC Music Day – allows people to browse more than 1,800 songs, classical works and TV theme tunes from the last 100 years, creating a playlist of personally meaningful music.
Those playlists can then be shared – along with some basic information about the user’s age, gender and place of birth – allowing carers to identify songs that could help others with a similar background.
“The example we often give is that there’s a famous Scottish lullaby called Ally Bally Bee,” said Sarah Metcalfe from Playlist for Life.
“Most people in Glasgow have it on their playlist because it takes them back to their mum singing to them and feeling safe and loved.
“But if you’re Glaswegian and you end up in a care home in Reading, the chances are nobody knows Ally Bally Bee. They’ve never even heard of it.
“And if we can begin to connect up what people like in different parts of the country, we can actually begin to help reach people.”
A psychological phenomenon known as the “memory bump” means the music we hear between the ages of 10 and 30, when we become independent, carries more emotional resonance than any other.
“So if you’ve got a relative with dementia, even if they can’t communicate with you any more, you can think back to when they would have been 10 to 30 years old, and use that as a key to unlock the kinds of music they might really enjoy, and it might have a lot of benefits for them,” said Sally Bowell from the International Longevity Centre.
“The science checks out,” Lightbody told the BBC.
“The songs of my dad’s youth would be from the ’50s, and when something comes on from that period he perks up a hell of a lot.
“You put on some Frank Sinatra and he loves it.”
The benefits of music therapy in addressing dementia are still being explored, but there have already been some powerful results.
At the Lillyburn Care Home near Glasgow, a music programme designed by Playlist For Life has led to a 60% reduction in the use of anti-psychotic medication.
The number of people living with dementia in the UK expected to rise to 1.1 million by 2025.
“Music therapy is addressing some of the toughest questions about how we, as a health service and as a care system, are going to look after people with this horrible condition,” Metcalfe told the BBC.
“The national dementia strategy has a priority of trying to reduce the use of anti-psychotics, and this is a really practical alternative.
“It’s not going to work in every situation. But we see, time and again, it’s a way of reaching somebody before you need to resort to using really powerful medication.”