Warning: Spoilers ahead for the end of Pixar’s new film Coco.
Pixar’s new animated movie Coco follows a boy named Miguel on an accidental journey through the Land of the Dead. He befriends a dead man named Hector who desperately wants his living daughter Coco to remember him. But Coco is very old, and her memory is fading. She spends her scenes sitting still, lost in thought, unable to identify members of her own family.
When Miguel returns to the land of the living, he plays Coco a song her father wrote for her and sang to her often when she was a child. The music revives Coco, and she happily sings along with Miguel. She regains her ability to speak and recognize her daughter, and she speaks cogently to her gathered family about her childhood. Even in a film where skeletons sing and dance in a neon afterlife, it’s a magical scene in two ways: it’s moving and emotional, and it’s hard to accept as realistic. But while the degree of Coco’s recovery is unlikely, experts say Coco actually gets a lot of things right about memory and music.
Coco’s memory loss looks like the result of dementia, a series of brain changes that make it harder to think, remember, communicate, and function. Dementia affects 47 million people worldwide, and although the movie never names it specifically, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause for people over age 65. It’s a progressive disease that eats away at memory and self-identity. But there are hints that musical memories are spared, which has led to a debate…