Let music be your medicine

Listening to music always prompted my father to tell stories about significant events in his life – the first opera his mother took him to see when he was 8 years old; dining out with Mum at their favourite restaurant in Skadarlija, Belgrade; a chance visit to an artist’s gallery in Hawaii. 

Medical research is now accumulating evidence that music does indeed improve memory, movement and emotional wellbeing in people with not only dementia but also Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland studied the effects of musical activities in 89 pairs of dementia patients and their caregivers. One group took part in a 10 week singing program. The second group focused on listening to music. A third group were given standard care without any musical activities.

After 9 months, those in the singing and music groups showed improvements in focused attention, memory, reasoning, planning, decision-making, orientation and mood, compared with the group that had only received standard care. Singing produced the greatest benefits in people under the age of 80 with mild dementia, while music-listening was best for those with more advanced forms of dementia. Depression was alleviated equally well in both groups. The other good news was that it didn’t matter whether or not a person had previous musical experience. They benefited just as much in either case.

In another study, researchers from Iowa State University in Ames demonstrated that in people with Parkinson’s disease, singing could improve their ability to control their breathing and swallowing, as well as lower stress, anxiety, blood pressure and symptoms of depression. 

Surprisingly, Parkinson’s patients also experienced a reduction in their tremors and they were able to walk better and use their upper limbs more easily. The scientists described them as ‘having a spring in their step’ whenever they finished a singing session. 

The reasons for the positive effects of singing are still being unravelled but it seems that singing could:

  1. stimulate production of oxytocin – a hormone that makes us feel calm and more connected to others
  2. reduce inflammation
  3. activate the formation of new connections between brain cells.   

Learning a foreign language later in life also slows the development of dementia, and scientists have now found a way to make remembering new words easier. Adults who were learning Hungarian were divided into 3 groups. The first group were taught to speak new Hungarian phrases just as they would in ordinary conversation. The second group were asked to sing the phrases, while the third group had to repeat the phrases in a rhythmic fashion. When they were tested some time later, those who had sung the phrases remembered them more easily and with much greater accuracy than either of the other 2 groups. 

So give your brain a double boost by learning to sing songs in a foreign language!

‘If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.’ – J M Barrie, Peter Pan

To discover more ways to boost your brain, I’d like to invite you to one of my free talks at a Ryman Retirement Village in Melbourne on 3rd or 4th June. Click here for details. 

You can also visit my new website: adventurepreventsdementia.com for your free Guide to Understanding Dementia and what to do about it.

Image courtesy of Visual Hunt.

  • Carolyn McMurtrie

    Maybe the body and mind become entrained with the music and it can thereby bring in a degree of order where there is disorder. Everyone responds physically to music. Classical music is so well ordered…Bach, Handel, Mozart etc, that its order, complexity and beauty can offer order to one’s body and mental state.

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