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Ontario Tech University research exploring relationship between music and managing dementia

Musical intervention may be a cost-effective approach to improving the lives of patients


It’s often said that music, in its various forms and genres, provides the soundtrack to our lives. Songs playing in the background in a store, on the radio of your parents’ car, or tunes we listen to on streaming services tend to evoke distinct or even vague memories of a specific time and place.

But what happens when people experience memory loss as they age? Can listening to music offer the same kind of neural connectivity those patients might have enjoyed when they were younger? At the very least, can music provide comfort and some sense of familiarity for adults living with dementia?

Researchers at Ontario Tech University are studying whether personalized music interventions (PMI) benefit the managing of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) in the Geriatric Dementia Unit at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences (Ontario Shores) in Whitby.

The preliminary results are promising: music appears to deliver a safe, low-cost and non-drug intervention to prevent BPSD.

“We are learning more about how music therapy can help patients with dementia connect with others, and engage with their memories and emotions,” says Dr. Wally Bartfay, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University. “It appears that music can be an important treatment tool when words don’t work well. Early evidence suggests hearing familiar music may be able to calm a patient with dementia who is restless and agitated, and even mouth the words of a familiar song upon hearing it spontaneously.”

The collaborative study with Ontario Shores involves Ontario Tech’s Faculty of Health Sciences, the Faculty of Business and Information Technology, the university’s Brilliant Catalyst experiential learning and entrepreneurship centre, and Ontario Tech students.  The research findings are published in the July edition of the American Journal of Biomedical Science and Research.

“PMI is a non-invasive treatment that allows patients to experience music they truly enjoy and relate to,” says Julie Earle, Nurse Practitioner on the Geriatric Dementia Unit at Ontario Shores. “But it’s not just a treatment. It’s incredible to watch a patient go from agitated, irritable or restless to completely settled in a matter of minutes as a result of PMI. Music provides a quality of life to those that have severe cognitive impairment, it allows for communication, emotional expression, reminiscence and relaxation. We may not always know what exactly is going through the individual’s thoughts, but I can say with certainty, it brings a very positive experience to all that experience it.”

The research could have huge implications for one of Canada’s (and the world’s) greatest clinical and public health challenges. Dementia presents itself in more than 100 different forms. Globally more than 50 million people live with dementia. That number is expected to more than triple by 2050, to a staggering cumulative economic cost of C$1.5 trillion.

“In addition to the potential cost savings afforded by a non-pharmacological approach, personalized music interventions have no known documented side effects or complications,” says Dr. Bartfay. “Music is portable, convenient and customizable. It promotes emotional well-being, reduces anxiety and boredom for everyone, and particularly patients in this preliminary study. Music has the potential to promote patient-centred care and quality of life.”

Ontario Tech and Ontario Shores established a new research partnership (Clinical Demonstration Unit) in October 2019 to transform dementia care through technology. PMI was one of five different project areas identified.

Researchers will look to expand the next phase of research to larger patient sample sizes and for a wider array of dementia conditions.

Media contact

Bryan Oliver
Communications and Marketing
Ontario Tech University
289.928.3653 (mobile)