Dispatches from the struggle against Alzheimer’s
Updates on new therapies, research and protection in the war on dementia
It seemed like a miracle.
Sabrina McCurbin, co-ordinator of the Alzheimer Society of Toronto’s Music and Memory: iPod Project, was delivering the program’s first iPod, loaded with personalized music, to a Toronto client.
She describes what happened when the woman, who was withdrawn into herself, received the gift of music: “We played one particular song and it was a song that was played at her sister’s wedding. As soon as the song finished, she turned to me and started relaying all these things that happened at her sister’s wedding — what she wore, all the things she did, how beautiful the weather was. She was right back in that moment. Her daughter was in tears. She couldn’t believe that her mother was still so alive inside.”
Music has power, McCurbin says. And those who work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients are increasingly finding out how much.
Angela Bianchi, whose 93-year-old aunt has had one of the program’s iPods for about six months, has seen the benefits firsthand.
Bianchi’s aunt often becomes agitated and when she does her niece says “we put the music on and it transports her away. It really calms her down. I think it brings back happy thoughts.”
And, Bianchi adds, “If we can calm her down using music rather than medication, that’s better.”
The Toronto program was inspired by a similar one in the U.S., that was the subject of the documentary film, Alive Inside. It recorded incredible results from music therapy. One segment – showing a mostly non-verbal gentleman, in a nursing home for 10 years, who begins talking and even singing after listening to the music – went viral on YouTube.
“The music seems to be a pathway to memories,” McCurbin says. “But the key element is that the music is personalized to emulate the soundtrack of their lives. It has to have an emotional connection for them.”
So far, she says, Broadway tunes and big-band swing are at the top of the favourites list.
“You want to hear the music of your own time,” Bianchi says. For her aunt, originally from an Italian agricultural community, that music is 1920s’ romantic songs that she remembers from her childhood, patriotic tunes and working songs that people would sing in the fields.
The Toronto program launched last January and has distributed some 800 iPods to date. The goal is to have 10,000 in the community by 2016. Start-up funds were provided by a private foundation and fundraising is ongoing to purchase the iPods and the iTunes music that is loaded onto them, anywhere from 150 to 300 songs each.
While it’s limited to the chapter’s catchment area, the idea is permeating other regions. McCurbin is getting calls both from other chapters and from nursing and retirement homes right across the country interested in setting up their own projects.
“We’re leading the pack in terms of numbers right now but there is definitely a buzz happening,” she says. “It’s definitely generating interest.”
The Toronto chapter is also collecting information from users on behavioural changes, which will be analyzed by a University of Toronto research team, generating a report to be released sometime next year.
Women are Victims More than Men
The premise behind “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” is that the sexes are fundamentally different. This applies as much or more to the brain as any other part of human physiology.
But exploring differences between male and female brains, particularly as concerns the effects of aging, is an area where medical research has, to date, fallen short.
That’s something the Canadian Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI), launched last spring, is determined to change.
Almost 70 per cent of new Alzheimer’s sufferers will be women and that’s a frightening fact that cannot be attributed simply to the fact that, statistically, women live longer than men, says Lynn Posluns, founder and president of WBHI.
There are definitely other factors at play, she says. Hormones are one.
It’s known that women are more likely to have Alzheimer’s if their mother had it than if their father. And in women who have had a hysterectomy where both ovaries are removed, the incidence of dementia is increased by 140 per cent.
“It’s partly hormonal and part can be certain things that trigger dementia,” Posluns says. “Women are more susceptible to things like depression and stress later in life and those things are known to be precursors.”
But “why” is the big question. “That’s the kind of thing we’d like researched, to better understand,” Posluns says. And current studies are not addressing this issue.
This research is expensive, in part because of the complexity of the hormonal component, she says. To look at that in rat studies, it might be necessary to have three female rats to each male.
But encouraging signs are emerging. WBHI has been asked to participate in a collaborative effort of Canadian neuroscientists, the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration and Aging (CCNA), put together by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to deal with the causes and prevention of dementia.
“This group has created a women and dementia core, which will cut through all the research studies that the group will be doing over the next five years,” Posluns says.
In addition, she says, an international panel of experts is looking at the Canadian initiative and seeing it as unique and innovative.
“It’s all very exciting in terms of finding answers for women,” she says.
In November, WBHI undertook a cross-country Mind Over Matter tour aimed at raising awareness and funds for additional research and educating the public about brain health and how to maintain it.
It was hosted by Deloitte, with presentations in their offices by scientists and health care industry leaders. Posluns notes that these sessions were videotaped and will be posted on the WBHI website (womensbrains.org), likely by spring 2014.
Learn About MedicAlert Safely Home
Few things are more frightening than being lost and alone, and that fear is augmented when the lost person suffers from dementia. Not only do they not know how to get home, often they are unable to tell anyone trying to help them where they live or even who they are.
The tendency of many Alzheimer’s patients to wander makes this a real concern for their families and caregivers.
But now, the Alzheimer Society of Canada and the Canadian MedicAlert Foundation, the country’s largest membership-based charity and provider of emergency medical information for more than half a century, have come together to provide a solution.
Last year, they launched MedicAlert Safely Home, a nationwide program to identify dementia patients who become lost and assist them in getting home.
Registrants receive a bracelet, engraved with their name, an identification number, a description of medical conditions and a toll-free phone number to MedicAlert’s 24/7 hotline accessing a database containing all pertinent information about the person.
“This program is an essential resource for keeping people with dementia safe,” says Mimi Lowi-Young, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Canada. “We’re answering a need which will become even more critical as our population ages.”
MedicAlert president and CEO Robert Ridge adds that, in addition to ensuring that people with dementia can find their way home, the database stores a full medical history for registrants, plus what medications they are taking and information about allergies and other health conditions.
Safely Home membership costs $60 for a year. However, as a registered charity, MedicAlert offers alternate payment programs, such as prepaid options, and subsidies for those who cannot afford a membership.
For information or to register visit MedicAlert.ca or call 855-581-3794.