Alive Inside: The Power of Music

Alive Inside (2014) is the stirring account of Dan Cohen, founder of the non-profit organization Music & Memory, struggling against a broken healthcare system. Along with independent documentary film-maker Michael Rossato-Bennett, they demonstrate music’s ability to reverse memory loss– restoring dignity & sense of self. [all pics google]

Dan Cohen

Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) is characterized by cognitive impairment. Agitation is a symptom in 70%-90% of those afflicted with advanced stage ADRDs.  This interferes with care delivery and social interaction, ultimately destroying their quality of life.  It is a huge problem facing human society, and like most other issues facing humanity, it’s growing worse daily– as illustrated by the graph below:

Growing Elderly Population

It should come as no surprise that geriatric healthcare providers suffer some of the highest rates of career burnout.  Burnout is a multi-factorial phenomenon, involving environmental, personality, and profession-related factors. Research shows risk for burnout in geriatric healthcare to be between 25-75%, depending on the study– with a likely overall average near 50%.  [1]

The problem of elderly care is fundamentally capitalist.  As explained in the film, “A doctor can write a prescription for a $1000/month anti-psychotic drug, and it’s no problem. But a patient getting reimbursed for a $40 iPod, as medical therapy, is next-to-impossible…nursing homes have become a shotgun marriage of poorhouses & hospitals.”

This is an accurate description and explains their motivation to over-medicate.  It pays-off the big pharmaceuticals, while turning those afflicted with ADRDs into vegetated zombies. These sedated ‘living dead’ are easier for staff to manage, and easier for corporations to milk for insurance profits.  Half the patients in U.S. nursing homes receive no visitors.

The WebMD tagline is “Better information. Better health.”   Their recommended therapies for ADRDs are:  anti-psychotics (major tranquilizers), benzodiazepines (psychoactive hypnotics) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (anti-depressants); all of which are highly toxic, with serious side-effects. These drugs were never meant for use on geriatric patients, and yet today they are the standard-of-care for Alzheimer’s and dementia.

WebMD covers its ass with this blurb (& qualifier) at the end of its ringing pharmaceutical endorsement, “The FDA has placed a ‘black box’ warning on these drugs describing these problems. They can be helpful for many people, though.”

Such is the cruel logic of healthcare under capitalism.


Individualized music as an alternative therapy for agitation in ADRD, involves carefully selected music, based on the person’s lifetime preferences. The easiest way to do this with anyone is to determine their years in high-school. The popular music from that era will usually be their favorite, or at least an excellent starting point.

Watch what familiar music does to 94-year old “Henry” in this clip from Alive Inside:

For this therapy to be effective, it needs to be individualized music.  Research shows “a significant reduction in agitation during and following individualized music, compared to classical music. This study expands science by testing and supporting a theoretically based intervention for agitation in persons with ADRD.” [2]

Why does individualized music work?  Because music evokes emotions that bring back memories. Any time we remember something, we are actually recalling where we were when we learned it.  When we hear a favorite song from the past, we are instantly transported back to that time & place in our minds.  No other medium has that power, and PET scans prove it scientifically.

PET scans: Brain on Music

The musicality within all of us is innately human, as chimpanzees don’t have this primal need to connect with other chimps through music.  Our musicality remains one of the last areas of the brain affected by ADRDs.  Music is a portal to reach people who have slipped into vegetative states, who are otherwise unreachable.

Artists & songwriters understand this better than anyone.  They create music for people to enjoy, because it connects them with others.  Their music IS the culture, and it’s power to communicate & heal will remain as long as human society exists.

      1. Money Bug - Ric Size