Music can be a powerful ally in the fight many seniors face against cognitive decline, reduced motor function and even depression. There is an increasing amount of evidence that playing a musical instrument, singing, or even listening to familiar songs can yield measurable benefits for a person’s physical and mental health.
Music and memory are interconnected.
Research studies have shown music to be a powerful tool for memory care— especially for a senior living with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive disorders.
According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), scientists have discovered a connection between the processing of musical stimuli and increased activity in the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotion— the medial prefrontal cortex.
Located near the midline of the brain, just behind the eyes, the medial prefrontal cortex has been observed to “light up” during functional MRI tests measuring the brain activity of young adults who are listening to familiar songs. They also noticed that the prefrontal cortex activity was strongest when the subject was listening to a song or tune to which the participant had reported an attachment of a specific memory or emotion.
What’s really interesting about that, notes Dr. Petr Janata, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, is that the medial prefrontal cortex is typically one of the last parts of the brain that is affected as Alzheimer’s disease takes hold.
Many dementia patients have a seemingly remarkable ability to recall songs and memories of youth, even when their disease has moderately progressed.
The medial prefrontal cortex may be the reason why.
Music therapy may help to preserve cognitive function.
The thought is that regularly listening to— or creating— music may help to keep that area of the brain active and strong, which may help to slow down the progression of dementia.
Music therapy is one way of doing so. In music therapy sessions, music is played for memory care patients during the course of normal conversation, in an effort to aid recall. Or, a music therapist may work with a patient to teach him or her how to sing or play an instrument.
There is some evidence that this interaction can actually help the brain to grow, or at least strengthen, connections between its various regions. One NIH-funded researcher, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, at Harvard Medical School, has found that making music can help stroke patients to overcome aphasia (the loss of the ability to speak) by stimulating undamaged sections of the brain that would otherwise not be responsible for speech to take over that action.
Music may alleviate physical ailments, too.
Researchers at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine found that music therapy can play a part in promoting heart health. In their 2008 study, participants who listened to “joyful” music experienced a widening of the central blood vessels in the heart, which eased blood flow and reduced physical stress on the arterial walls.
In essence, listening to music lowered blood pressure at one of the most critical points of the circulatory system. Conversely, the same blood vessels narrowed when the participants listened to music they associated with negative feelings.
A 2011 study at Drexel University found that both listening to music and undergoing music therapy sessions with a trained therapist reduced overall anxiety levels, lowered blood pressure and was associated with reductions in reports of pain in cancer patients.
Further evidence of music’s ability to distract from pain was published in a 2012 research study by the University of Utah’s Pain Research Center. In that trial, 143 participants were voluntarily administered mild electric shocks to their fingertips; when music was played in the background, participants reported experiencing pain or discomfort less often.
September is National Piano Month. Maybe it’s time to limber up those fingers?
The benefits of music therapy, music performance, or even listening to the radio seem to be clear. And it’s never too late to start playing. If you are looking for a new activity to try, you might consider taking up an instrument, or taking voice lessons? Or, you might just enjoy getting a subscription to your local symphony.
Getting out and listening to (or playing) music is a great way to meet other aficionados and improve your mood, your physical health and cognitive health.