It has long been poetic wisdom that music can soothe the savage breast. But recently, science has learned that it can also temporarily ease the ravages of Alzheimer's disease.
A new study from the University of California, Davis, found that familiar music can evoke "autobiographical memory retrieval" even from patients with late-stage Alzheimer's. Researchers theorize that a "hub" in the brain where "music, memories and emotions are associated" is more resilient against the brain-wasting disease.
The study's conclusions are no surprise to Mayer Davis. The West Hempstead resident made it a ritual to sing to his mother, Esther, even as she languished with Alzheimer's.
"She had Alzheimer's for about eight years, and the last few years, sadly, she basically just sat in a chair with her eyes closed, basically doing nothing," Davis says. "But after I'd start singing, from doing nothing, she would start singing along with me, not with words, but with accurate notes."
Singing comes naturally for Davis. He is the cantor at Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan. But it's not the beauty of the notes that is important - it is the memories the songs convey. "A lot of the songs I'd been singing were from her earliest childhood in Jerusalem that she had taught me," Davis says.
Davis has recorded five albums. He dedicated his latest, "Bridge of Generations," to his mother, who died in August. The CD features a compilation of Jewish songs and melodies that have been in the Davis family for generations. (To hear snippets from the album go to JewishJukeBox.com and type the album name in the search box. It is also available at Judaica Plus in Cedarhurst.) Davis is donating a portion of the proceeds to the Alzheimer's Association New York City chapter.
The power of music to reawaken memories was starkly illustrated for Davis when he started singing an old Jewish song he thought had two parts. After singing Part A, he went on to Part B. When he tried to return to Part A, his mother stirred. "She put her hand on my chest and started to teach me Part C, which I had never heard in my life," Davis says.