Perhaps you recall watching record-breaking Olympic 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 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 who may be inactive or noncommunicative?
Scientific researchers and music therapy professionals across the globe are continuing to discover how listening to music positively affects cognitive, physical and emotional health as well as social well-being. In the “Alive Inside” film (2012), educator and social worker Dan Cohen worked with renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks to capture the transformation of nursing-home patients given iPods with a playlist of music from their youth.
In the film, nearly comatose patients become animated by the music and even engage in dialogue. “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,” Sacks has said.
Following are ways that music positively impacts the health of seniors and others.
Boosts immune system
Music is shown to increase helpful antibodies, particularly immunoglobulin A, and supports cells that attack bacteria and germs invading the body.
A comprehensive review of 400 research papers on music’s neurochemistry found that music reduces stress levels. Listening to and playing music lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which also is known for weight gain.
Lowers blood pressure,
improves 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.
Both singing and listening to music increase endorphins, which boost feelings of happiness and pleasure.
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 showing that classical music helps the mind sharpen focus and sort information. Spontaneous singing along to music engages the brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for creative thoughts.
Assists the aging brain
A 2011 study in the journal Neuropsychology reported that University of Kansas Medical Center researchers discovered that people with the most musical training in their lives exhibited the best mental sharpness and scored higher on brain function tests.
A 2011 report of cancer patients revealed that musical interventions calm patients from operating rooms to family clinics. Dentists and doctors conclude 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.
According to Gene Lennon, owner of Right at Home Santa Clara County, a provider of at-home care for seniors, people respond differently to music, so to garner its positive effects, they should listen to music they like.
“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,” he said. “The benefits to older adults are as numerous as the types of music.”