Symphony, Queens Partner in Alzheimer's Study


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THE BOUNCING ALLEGRO of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” is a common accompaniment to elevator rides and film screenings. In senior-living communities across the country and in Charlotte, researchers are finding that a few bars of the Beethoven standard may reach and ignite the memory of an Alzheimer’s patient in a way words cannot.

For more than 20 years, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Healing Hand program has brought chamber ensembles to senior centers across the region. This year, the program gets a new, academic focus. The symphony and Queens University are partnering on a study that looks at engagement between live orchestral music and elderly Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. The study, supported by the Alzheimer’s Association, takes place over a period of three years. 

Symphony president and CEO Mary Deissler, who took over the 86-year-old group in 2016, led similar charges as head of other symphonies in Boston and Los Angeles. One of the most important aspects of this effort, she says, is targeting patients of varying socio-economic levels. The closed study at Complete Care Myers Park and Southminster, which also provides financial support to the study, includes a range of participants. Students from Queens track 10 to 12 residents at both sites, noting cognitive and physical responses to orchestral music during and between performances.

Deissler says that there is still much to learn about the relationship between orchestral music and these ailments. A 2016 Colorado State University study is one of many projects that shows access to classical music has a positive effect on those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. It was hoped that the exposure to classical performance would halt cognitive decline, but the school’s researchers found that patients actually improved. Improvements were also noted along the widely used Geriatric Depression Scale for patients. Deissler maintains that even outside of the Alzheimer’s research, Healing Hand performances are improving the lives of residents in senior communities. Many in this demographic are unable to make it to Belk Theater for the several orchestra performances throughout the year. 

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