Healing Power of Music, Meditation, and Yoga in Alzheimer’s Patients

Yoga Basics

More and more people that suffer from dementia, and moreover Alzheimer’s Disease, have been turning to different types of treatments that involve music, yoga and meditation. Alzheimer’s and other related dementia disorders affect over 50 million Americans, a number that has increased over the past few years alone. From that number, statistics also show that at least 1 in every 10 Americans that are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are at least 65-years old and above as well. 

A number of elderly patients have shared their stories of how these alternative therapies have worked for them too. 58-year old Pauli Reading who was diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s shares about her yoga, “I love it, love it, love it. It makes me feel so much better and stronger.” And her husband agrees, explaining, “Yoga is one of the many paths that helped her. When she was doing yoga, she was thinking about the poses and talking to the other students. She was exercising mentally and well as physically. At the very least, it didn’t hurt.”

88-year old Bonnie Ball, on the other hand, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s ten years before, and had already reached a point where she couldn’t recognize her grandkids anymore. But when she was given headphones by her music therapist to listen to her favorite childhood Christian hymns, her daughter explains that, “Her eyes lit up with such a sense of joy and she remembered all the lyrics and would start singing along.” She added, “Afterward, she was more alert and happy, like she had just had a workout for her brain. We played music the entire time she was on hospice; we knew she heard everything. She sang until she could no longer speak.”

Despite the fact that no type of therapy can reverse the inevitable cognitive decline that comes with dementia or Alzheimer’s, research shows that patients that engage in yoga, music and meditation therapies improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, which therefore helps improve their quality of life. Plus engaging in these activities is known to stimulate the memory center of the brain as well, possibly generating new brain cells in the process.

Unfortunately, there are only two classes of medication that are FDA approved, both that treat cognitive decline and memory loss, and no amount of alternative treatments can replace medical ones. But there are a number of positive benefits that come from doing alternative therapies. According to associate professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Elise Caccappolo, Ph.D., “When people are less active, their memory often declines at a faster rate.”

“If they have a yoga class to go to or interaction with a music therapist, that will get them off the couch and keep them engaged and active. And when you lift that veil of depression, that can help memory.”

Find out more about these varied types of alternative therapy below. 

Use Yoga to Strengthen Cognitive Thinking 

Women Fitness

Studies have proven just how beneficial physical exercise is when it comes to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Researchers have found that individuals that engage in at least 6 to 12 months of exercise actually did better on cognitive tests than those that were sedentary. Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and co-author of The Healing Self: A Revolutionary New Plan to Supercharge Your Immune System and Stay Well for Life, cites “Exercise has been shown to reduce the amyloid plaque in the brain that causes Alzheimer’s, to induce the birth of a new nerve cells in the hippocampus [the area of the brain where memories are stored], and to help clear inflammation, so when those new cells are born they have a nice neighborhood to grow up in.”

So why yoga? That’s because it can work for all age groups, it can be done both indoors and outdoors, and it can be even done while sitting in a chair – which is a wonderful benefit for those that are mobility impaired. 

Professor of psychiatry at UCLA, Dr. Helen Lavretsky explains, “Yoga involves awareness of your movement and breath, posture, and focused attention on a mantra, a pose, or a visualization. If it’s done in a group setting, there is also a social element. There are many components to the exercise that involve different brain centers.”

A series of studies conducted by Dr. Lavretsky have shown that people with cognitive impairment that do yoga end up with strengthened and improved cognition, mood and memory. But while yoga offers a lot of cognitive improvements, it’s important to start early before the late stage of dementia has started to set in. Dr. Lavretsky explains, “But in the advanced stages of dementia, it may be better to introduce something the patient is already familiar with, like dancing to the music of their youth.” 

Use Meditation to for Stress Reduction


Some patients with Alzheimer’s prefer to try meditation rather than yoga, as they tend to be intimidated by the idea of all the poses needed to practice yoga. There are also a bunch of benefits that a patient can get from doing as little as 12 minutes of meditation per day, like improved brain function, memory and sleep.

Meditation is a practice that helps calm the mind and body, and most importantly supports finding inner peace, and it’s been practiced for thousands of years too. It also aids in stress relief, which is considered highly important to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., shares, “Both acute and chronic stress signal the brain to secrete the hormone cortisol, which is highly toxic to just about every system the body, but especially the brain.”

Dr. Khalsa, Dr. Lavretsky and their colleagues have published a number of studies that discuss the effects of meditation on dementia. Dr. Khalsa adds, “It causes brain-cell death in the hippocampus and can lead to earlier amyloid deposition. It can also lead to decreased blood flow, and decreased function in the synapses where the brain cells talk to each other.” 

Sadly, those that are under chronic stress are at higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s. And studies also show that different types of meditation result in different benefits, depending on which part of the brain is being engaged. Again, a number of studies were conducted, with one in particular showing remarkable changes in otherwise healthy women who engaged in meditation for just one week. Dr. Tanzi iterates, “After a week of learning meditation and doing it several times per day, there were changes in the genes involved with how brain clears out Alzheimer’s-associated amyloid from the brain out of the body.”

Although Dr. Caccappolo explains that these smaller studies don’t have exact evidence of the brain recovering tissue lost through Alzheimer’s. Yet she still shares that any type of stress-relief is worth trying. “Stress can make anything worse, especially memory. The best thing about meditation is that it doesn’t cost anything, and if it can help relieve any symptoms, I encourage patients to try it.” 

Use Music to Life Your Mood


Meditation and yoga have proven to be effective for those in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s while music therapy is known to be effective for those suffering from the latest stages of the disease.

One of the first ways that music can help is that it stimulates emotions and memories. Try to think of a song from your childhood and take note of all the memories that are stirred up from what you hear. Dr. Caccappolo explains that particular music that happens to be meaningful to someone manages to activate regions in the brain that tend to be the last affected by Alzheimer’s. Shared by music therapist Concetta A. Tomaino, “The emotional associations with that music from your past releases chemicals in their brain to boost mood.”

But more than nostalgia, Tomaino reiterates, “There are several levels at which music is effective. We know the act of playing music or singing forces the frontal cortex to be engaged, and that part of the brain is crucial for short-term memory, so engaging in active music-making actually reinforces short-term memory and long-term memory storage.”

Meanwhile, a 2014 review in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, has found that music therapy works to reduce depression, anxiety and agitated behavior in those suffering from dementia as well as improving other forms of therapy as well.

Also, a study done at Boston University School of Medicine conducted back in 2010 revealed that patients  with Alzheimer’s actually remember new information when it’s in the context of music. Tomaino clarifies, “I often make up a little melody to help patients remember their children’s names or their address,” which is why TV commercials have the same effect on viewers.

Tomaino adds, “The act of singing words actually primes the verbal areas in their brain to be more active, and word retrieval improves after they sing. It’s almost like you have to turn on those neuronal networks into action.” And that’s not all, music is also known to support balance and movement. 

“The rhythm of music can improve a person’s motivation to move and also improves coordination of movement. Listening to music while you’re walking can improve balance, posture, and gait coordination on a neuronal level,” says Tomaino.

All three forms of alternative therapies – yoga, meditation and music – have all proven to give a sense of joy and peace to patients that feel lost, confused and depressed.

The Vice President of research and health care innovation for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington, Eric B. Larson, M.D. says, “There is no magic bullet that can prevent Alzheimer’s, though the closest thing is regular exercise, which can lower the risk and delay decline. For things like yoga and music, the evidence has been soft. But when people ask, should I try it? I tell them, it’s not going to hurt you, and the drugs can be harmful to some people. It makes a lot of sense.” 

If you or someone you know is at risk for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, be sure to discuss the possibility of adding alternative forms of therapy to your regimen in order to help with your current medical state.