Could music be the key to unlocking memories?


by Melissa Swan

Posted on February 13, 2013 at 7:33 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 9 at 7:39 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- When it's happy hour at the Magnolia Springs Memory Care Center the mood is light, the residents are singing, they're dancing and tapping their feet.

Center Director, Patty Harper says, "They literally come alive.  People who might be losing their verbal skills still know all the words to the songs."

Music is processed in a different part of the brain than language.  Research shows that music might be a key to unlocking memories lost in dementia.

Leading the Magnolia Springs sing along is Jeanie Ash.  She's well-known to many Louisville audiences as one third of a former rock and roll band called "Peaches."

In the 70's and 80's, Peaches toured with some of the greats.  The Doobie Brothers, the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  In Louisville they were center stage at weddings and parties.

Ash has long since traded in rock n roll for Sunday services at First Christian Church.  But, it wasn't rock or even hymns that led Jeanie to helping memory loss patients -- it was her Mom.  Evelyn McDonald Milby suffered from dementia before she passed away 3 years ago.

"I was amazed how she could recall all these songs from her young adult life and how much joy and happiness it brought her." Jeanie said.

Jeanie now combines her love for music with her love for her Mom and helps other people suffering from memory loss at 22 centers and nursing homes throughout Louisville. She helps people like Charlie Yunker who has always loved music.  Charlie raised 10 children and designed and built houses for a living.   Now, he's lost most of his memory but music obviously taps into his emotions.  The music makes Charlie cry.

Two of his children, Mollie Yunker and David Yunker told me,"He use to say when he was more cognizant, 'I'm over-grinning.'   Those were the words he used.  Over-grinning.   He'd just have tears and he couldn't stop it and he wouldn't know why."

Why the music makes such an obvious impact is the subject of studies that are coming up with amazing data.

Darcy Walworth, the director of the Music Therapy Department at the University of Louisville calls music at natural stimulant. "The areas of the brain that are activated are the same areas that are activated when you take cocaine," Walworth said.

That extreme reaction comes from the music we love most but studies show any music will light up the lobes.   Dr. Walworth studied our video tape from Ash's session at Magnolia Springs.  In those sessions she sees more than mere entertainment. She says, "What I see is increased socialization, increased purposeful movement."

At Magnolia Springs Director Patty Harper says, "I have a man who likes to stay in his room.  He was out here singing Elvira a few minutes ago.  I love it.  I can't wait to tell his daughter."

Jeanie Ash is a daughter who has discovered the importance of music and memory.  Dedicating her musical work to the memory of her Mom.

She says, "Oh, it's healed me.  It brings so much joy to bring music to those who need it so desperately."

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