MP3 players help people with dementia and Alzheimer's

Researchers at the University of Waterloo say music can help improve quality of life for people with Alzheimer's and dementia.
A shot of Apple iPod Nanos from a launch event in 2007. The University of Waterloo is asking for old MP3 players to donate to people with Alzheimer's and dementia, a measure to help improve quality of life. ((REUTERS/Robert Galbraith))

University of Waterloo researchers are asking for people to donate their old MP3 players and iPods to help people suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia.

The Murray Alzheimer Research and Education program (MAREP) associated with the University of Waterloo is inspired by techniques developed by a U.S. non-profit organization called Music & Memory.

"Essentially, the part of the brain that processes music and memory is generally the part of the brain that is last to be affected," said Sacha Geer, a researcher at MAREP in an interview with Craig Norris on The Morning Edition.

"It's also the part of the brain that tends to be connected to autobiographical experiences, particular moments in time from a person's life."

Geer explained that music may act as a trigger, so that listening to a particular song can help a person re-live a specific time in their life. MAREP is seeking old MP3 players in order to help provide personalized music for dementia sufferers.

MAREP will distribute the used MP3 players to partner organizations — like long-term care homes — in Waterloo region.

"The barrier to access is actually gaining access to the iPods or the MP3-type devices," Geer said.

Once the MP3 players are collected, Geer said family and friends can help select personalized music for the person suffering from dementia. In the best case scenario, the person themselves can say what they want to hear.  

"It's one thing to hear nursery rhymes, but it's another thing to hear the nursery rhyme that your mother sang to you," said Geer.

Geer cautioned that music isn't a "magic bullet" but said that generally people become more engaged with the world around them and depression rates go down while physical and verbal abilities rise. That can help develop better relationships with care providers and improve quality of life.

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, over 747,000 Canadians are living with cognitive impairment, including Alzheimer's and dementia.