Senior Lifestyles

Music to their ears: Golden Oldies sharpen seniors' memory function

Photo By: Photos Courtesy of John W. Lehman
Photo Photos Courtesy Of John W. Lehman John W. Lehman, executive director of Senior New Ways employs the familiar strains of music from their youth to spark seniors’ memory function.

Music soothes the soul, but it can also enhance memory function.

Senior New Ways, a local nonprofit group that sponsors programs designed to promote the whole health of older adults, launched a Vintage Music Therapy for Memory Stabilization and Enhancement program last month. The Palo Alto-based organization includes a number of Los Altos residents as staff and teachers.

Twice a week, residents of senior-care facilities and attendees of adult day-care programs listen to 45-60 minutes of music from their youth, reminiscing, with the belief that the memory functions encouraged and forced by listening to the songs will spill over into remembering other useful day-to-day facts, objects and words.

According to John W. Leh-man, Senior New Ways’ executive director, memory loss from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses brings progressive isolation and confusion to both patients and caregivers. While many treatment possibilities are available to individuals and groups, he said, only a few are well suited to the group circumstances of care facilities and senior day-care centers, with varieties of memory impairment.

Among the treatments is listening to music, Lehman said, which has been found to stimulate several parts of the brain. Many studies report that Alzheimer’s and dementia patients remember specific music, which can reduce stress, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.

Lehman, a musicologist, said that in our teens, we often choose the sort of music we’ll love forever. The teen years are emotional times, “and we tend to remember things that have an emotional component, because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important,” he said.

In lay terms, those songs and emotions stick – they “really get cemented in,” Lehman added.

In addition, the brain undergoes massive changes up until the teen years. Remembering music and remembering words are each handled in opposite hemispheres of the brain, adding to the “exercise,” Lehman said.

“There’s a song that once struck the listener with a force that felt like true love,” he said. “Play one of those songs now and, if it’s been a long time, the effect is like an old movie – the scenes play back for the listener in entire exhilarating reels.”

The listener may feel as if the songs he or she remembers are grabbing the heart, but what’s actually going on is in the brain. There is an “exquisite orchestration of brain regions” that are engaged in a “precision choreography of neurochemical uptake and release,” wrote cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin in “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton/Penguin, 2006).

In other words, Lehman said, the brain is intensely exercised, and memories are released. And if the music memory can be released, why not everyday words, objects and facts?


Senior New Ways’

therapeutic approach

Lehman said care facilities sometimes hire music therapists to help relieve grief and improve emotional tones and feelings. Improvement is partly due to the effect music has on increasing the release of certain hormones in the body. Most studies have addressed the ability of an individual with musical talents to retain those talents while losing other memory faculties. Significant experiential and formal study evidence exists on the ability of older memory-impaired adults to remember songs.

Senior New Ways’ hypothesis is that memory-impaired seniors in groups of 10 or more will be able to maintain or improve certain memory functions through repeated listening to well-known songs from their high school years.

Lehman uses his extensive collection of pop, country, R&B, Big Band and jazz songs, dating from June 1928 (for a 102-year-old) to June 1955 (for a 75-year-old). The pilot program is expected to last at least 12 months.

The program includes:

• Pretesting memory function with baseline questions of two types: first, common words with unusual spellings like “ache” or “two”; and second, naming common items, such as a toothbrush or globe.

• Twice-weekly 45-60 minute “Name That Tune” and/or “Who Sang It?” sessions for 12 months. Residents/attendees listen to snippets of favorite songs, or the entire songs, with strong historical identification or connection, in this case the actual recordings of popular songs from the graduation months and years of the listeners. Participants are encouraged to sing along and reminisce about the songs.

• Monthly retests and comparisons to the pretherapy baseline.

According to Lehman, the initial session was exciting. A 91-year-old sang “Deep Purple” from 1939, accompanying a recording, and recognized the singer’s name – as did several of her “younger” neighbors. Nearly all participants hummed and toe-tapped, murmuring “It’s right on the tip of my tongue,” and “They don’t make songs like that anymore.”

Senior New Ways is located at 463 College Ave., Palo Alto. For more information, visit, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 468-5456.

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