Perhaps you saw the video that went viral a while back about the elderly Alzheimer’s patient who was transformed when he was given a iPod loaded with the music of his era? (You can watch the video on the “Music and Memory Project” website.)
Over the past few years, researchers have offered new insight into the ways music promotes healthy aging and a sense of well-being for seniors. Recent studies show that listening to music gives the brain a good “workout,” as it makes sense of the patterns and melodies. For example, in an Emory University study, lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD, reported, “Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging.”
Another recent study, from Northwestern University, confirms that musical training promotes memory health, and also improves hearing ability in seniors. Researchers showed that listening to music improves the ability to perceive speech in a noisy environment, which is a common challenge as age-related hearing impairment occurs.
Studies have shown detectable brain changes when a person is listening to music. Music influences brain waves, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and muscle tone. It provides many other important health benefits. For example:
- Music can decrease the perception of pain. It provides distraction from aches and illness. Listening to music that a person enjoys can actually raise the level of endorphins (brain chemicals linked with a feeling of well-being).
- Music has the capacity to reach hidden brain areas. It is stored differently in the brain than are speech and memory. This is why people with Alzheimer’s, stroke, Parkinson’s disease or other conditions that cause a diminished ability to speak or carry on a conversation, may still be able to sing.
- Music serves as a storehouse for memories. Pictures, thoughts and vivid recollections can all be encoded in the mind with music. So by enhancing memory, music is a good addition to reminiscing activities.
- Music helps people who are cognitively impaired. Many people with dementia become more aware of the present, of their surroundings, and of other people while listening to music.
- Music is a wonderful resource for people with visual impairment. It provides another way of staying in touch with the world.
- Music encourages seniors to exercise and be more active. What’s more fun, calisthenics or dancing? With the addition of music, movements become a pleasure rather than a chore.
- Music can improve sleep quality. Recent studies show that seniors with sleep problems experienced an improvement after listening to soft music at bedtime.
- Music brings people together. People who “co-experience” the same rhythms, moods and neurological responses enjoy a togetherness which is familiar to concertgoers or church congregations. Listening to music together enhances communication, and can lend a sense of unity to people of different abilities and of different generations. Music helps us interact with others and feel part of a group.
- Music can have positive emotional effects. It can uplift the spirit. It can reduce anxiety, stress and agitation. Music which is associated with pleasant memories can be a source of relaxation. And the therapeutic use of music has been shown to be effective in reducing depression.
- Music provides a sense of meaning and fulfillment. Studies show that most of us have our own strong musical tastes, with which we often identify. Reacting to music in one’s own way builds self-esteem.
- Music provides comfort at the end of life. Patients receive palliative benefit from appropriate, personalized music. Music helps meet the physical, emotional and psychosocial needs of hospice patients.