Featured Review: Music-based therapeutic interventions for people with dementia

Music-based therapeutic intervention probably reduces depressive symptoms and improves overall behavioural problems.

This review team from the Netherlands set out to see if they could find evidence that therapy based on music improves the emotional well-being and quality of life of people with dementia. They were also interested in evidence about effects on emotional, behavioural, social or cognitive (e.g. thinking and remembering) problems in people with dementia.

The team found 22 trials to include in the review and were able to combine results for at least some outcomes from 890 people. All of the people in the trials stayed in nursing homes or hospitals. Some trials compared music-based treatments with usual care, and some compared them with other activities, such as cooking or painting. The quality of the trials and how well they were reported varied, and this affected the confidence in the results.

Lead author Jenny van der Steen, explains, "First, we looked at outcomes immediately after a course of therapy ended. From our results, we could be moderately confident that music-based therapy improves symptoms of depression and overall behavioural problems, but not specifically agitated or aggressive behaviour. Music-based therapy may also have little or no effect on cognition, but we were less confident about this result. We were also not that confident about whether the therapy improves anxiety and emotional well-being including quality of life and we had very little confidence in possible beneficial effects on social interaction.

Jenny continues, “Some studies also looked to see whether there were any lasting effects four weeks or more after treatment ended. However, there was little data and we were uncertain or very uncertain about the results. Further trials are likely to have a significant impact on what we know about the effects of music-based treatments for people with dementia, so continuing research is important. We need high-quality research with blinded outcome assessment to not overestimate effects.”

In summary:
Providing people with dementia who are in institutional care with at least five sessions of a music-based therapeutic intervention probably reduces depressive symptoms and improves overall behavioural problems at the end of treatment. It may also improve emotional well-being and quality of life and reduce anxiety, but may have little or no effect on agitation or aggression or on cognition. We are uncertain about effects on social behaviour and about long-term effects. Future studies should examine the duration of effects in relation to the overall duration of treatment and the number of sessions.

•    Read the full Cochrane Review
•    Visit the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement website