Perhaps you recall watching record-breaking Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps listening to music via earphones before his races at the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics. The world’s most-decorated Olympic athlete listened to a mix of rap with a little techno to narrow his focus and pump him up pre-race. Scientific evidence supports the advantage that music has in improving blood oxygen capacity and performance and lifting feelings of fatigue in athletes. But what about music’s effect on the rest of us, especially older adults?
Scientific researchers and music therapy professionals across the globe are continuing to discover how listening to music positively affects cognitive, physical and emotional health, and social well-being.
In the Alive Inside film, educator and social worker Dan Cohen worked with renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Saks to capture the transformation of nursing home patients who are given iPods with a playlist of music from their youth.
“I regard music therapy as a tool of great power in many neurological disorders — Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — because of its unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged,” Dr. Sacks said.
In the film, nearly comatose patients become animated by the music and even engage in dialogue.
Following are some ways music positively impacts the health of seniors and others:
» Decreases anxiety and soothes pain. A 2011 report of cancer patients shows that musical interventions calm patients from operating rooms to family clinics. Dentists and doctors report that patients who listen to mellow music before, during and after surgery and medical procedures report less pain and anxiety and require less sedative medication.
» Reduces stress. A comprehensive review of 400 research papers on music’s neurochemistry found that music reduces stress levels. Listening to and playing music significantly lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which also is known for weight gain.
» Lowers blood pressure and boosts heart health. Listening to joyful music helps blood flow through blood vessels. In a University of Maryland Medical Center study, the diameter of blood vessels expanded by 26 percent when a person listened to happy music and constricted by 6 percent when a person listened to anxiety-triggering music.
» Boosts the immune system. Music is shown to increase helpful antibodies, particularly immunoglobulin A, and supports cells that attack bacteria and germs invading the body.
» Lifts mood and decreases depression. Both singing and listening to music increase endorphins, which boost feelings of happiness and pleasure.
» Aids memory. Listening to music triggers the release of the brain’s neurotransmitter, dopamine, which aids cognition, voluntary movement, working memory and sleep. Stanford University researchers conducted brain scans that showed classical music helps the mind sharpen focus and sort information. Spontaneous singing along to music engages the brain’s prefrontal cortex that is responsible for creative thoughts.
» Assists the aging brain. A 2011 study in the journal Neuropsychology reports that University of Kansas Medical Center researchers discovered people with the most musical training in their lives exhibited the best mental sharpness and scored higher on brain function tests.
“People respond differently to music, so to garner its positive effects, they should listen to music they like,” said Tina Kreider, owner of Right at Home of Santa Barbara. “Whether it’s classical, country, ragtime or rock-‘n’-roll, music can help aging loved ones recover from illness or injury, improve their mood and recall past events. The benefits to the elderly are as numerous as the types of music!”