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Backed By Fort Collins' Symphony, 'B Sharp' Hopes Music Can Help Alzheimer's Patients

Stacy Nick
Before the concert, Steve Jablonsky completes a memory test with CSU researchers. He was given a random list of letters and numbers and then asked to repeat them back, numbers first. After the concert, he repeated the test.

A lifetime of memories can disappear in an instant for those with Alzheimer's and dementia. One study is looking at whether music can help keep that spark going a little longer – and make the lives of patients, and their caregivers, a little better. The study is known as B Sharp and participants attend concerts by the Fort Collins Symphony.

"If you think about a symphony, it's not just something that you listen to," said Jeni Cross, an associate sociology professor at Colorado State University and head of the study. "It's actually something that you feel with your whole body." 

Before and after the symphony performances, patients are given memory tests and asked about their emotional state. Their caregivers are also asked about changes they've noticed in the patient, as well as how the concerts have impacted their own lives.

Cross is looking for a couple things: the therapeutic effect of going to a concert – both for the patient and the caregiver – and just how big an impact music can have on memory.

"Music is one of the things that we know really has the capacity to trigger our memory," she said.

Throughout their 48 years of marriage, Fort Collins couple Steve and Lynn Jablonsky said a lot of their memories are tied to music.

"We've always been involved in music ever since we first met in college," Lynn said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Lynn and Steve Jablonsky hold hands during Steve's test as part of the B Sharp study.

Steve, a retired accounting and business professor was diagnosed with Fragile X in 2014. The neurodegenerative disorder's symptoms include dementia.

"Well, we feel like there's not a cure for Fragile X, at least from my idea," said Lynn during a recent symphony concert that was part of the study." My idea is if we can do anything to benefit the public in terms of – you know – what he has… It can't hurt."

Only two concerts into the study, the researchers have already seen some interesting results, researcher Jeni Cross said. One patient, who typically doesn't remember things for very long had specific memories of the concert the next day. Sometimes, older memories are tapped into.

"One of the caregivers found out that her partner had played a musical instrument when he was younger – I think that maybe it was the trumpet," Cross said. "After the concert it triggered those young memories for him and they were able to talk about it."

That part about talking afterward is key. Besides memory, a big loss for dementia and Alzheimer's patients is in their social connections.

"As people lose their memory, they lose their ability to relate to people, to remember their loved ones and to talk about their experiences in meaningful ways," Cross said.

Even before Hal Squire's Alzheimer's diagnosis seven years ago, he and his wife, Sue, worked hard to maintain an active lifestyle that included the arts. The Loveland couple still attends concerts, as well as working out at a weekly seniors exercise class at McKee Medical Center.

"He likes to be doing things," Sue said. "He doesn't get a lot of joy anymore out of just watching TV at home. It's kind of a blur sort of, I think."

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Sue and Hal Squire warm up at their seniors workout class at McKee Medical Center

The day after they attend a symphony concert for the B Sharp study, Hal doesn't remember anything about the performance, but Sue said there are still benefits.

"Even when we went home – it was a late night for us – but he was enthusiastic about it and not tired right away," she said. "He goes to bed sometimes at 8:30 or 9 p.m., but that night we were up till 11 or 11:30 p.m. He was happy about it. It was a good thing."

It's also been a good thing for Sue, and that's the goal, CSU researcher Jeni Cross said.

"Being at the concert and talking to people in that kind of social setting allows them to receive support from the community," Cross said. "They might run into friends that they know at the concerts and they also can just talk about what's going on with other people in a setting that isn't kind of a clinical place where like, 'I've come here to talk about my burden and get support.'"

At the end of the Fort Collins Symphony's 2015 season, study organizers – which include Banner Health, Kaiser Permanente, the Alzheimer's Association, and the Larimer County Office on Aging – hope to use the data to expand the program to include other types of arts experiences.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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