Fresh out of graduate school, I was in the first rotation of my internship at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center (DC VAMC). The rotation was in the nursing home care unit, where the VAMC had an amazing music and movement therapist. The therapist, who was previously a professional dancer until his career-ending car accident, was working with a dementia group. The residents within the group were completely introverted; each patient was in their own world, disconnected from each other.
Music and association with the brain.
In what was, and still is, a pivotal moment in my life and career, the therapist played music. As soon as the music started, a gentleman stood up and began to waltz with the therapist. The two waltzed through the entire song, and as soon as the music ended, the resident returned to his seat. He immediately curled up on himself; whatever the music had released within him seemingly evaporated as soon as the song ended.
It was at this time that I understood first-hand the strong association of the brain with music; Few activities stimulate the brain in the way that music does, since music travels in different ways than other forms of communication. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “music is the universal language of mankind,” and I have thought of this quote often in my career as a licensed clinical psychologist. Music can have a tremendous impact on healthy aging, and more critically, on a person’s cognitive health. Even for our elderly population, music can have significant positive effects on health, both physically and emotionally.
Music is a medicine without side effects
Music can be the best medicine, and unlike almost any other medicine, it has no negative side effects. It has the proven ability to lower stress levels (cortisol), change and improve mood, increase levels of motivation and productivity, and connect us socially. Research also shows 1 that music has the power to lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, reduce our perception of pain, and improve sleep quality, mood, alertness, and memory. Listen and play music too increases2 the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells, the cells that attack invading viruses and increase the effectiveness of the immune system.
Even for young, healthy people, a “memory playlist” that includes meaningful songs from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood can be beneficial for long-term cognitive health. To develop a memory playlist, research popular songs for certain times in your life and select those that resonate the most with certain memories.
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It is also important and beneficial to listen to new music and styles outside of normal listening options; Like any other activity, listening to just a few repeated songs doesn’t create the same opportunities for growth. New music creates cognitive challenges that familiar music doesn’t, and that unfamiliarity forces our brains to work to understand new sounds and rhythms.
The association of music with cognitive health
The human brain has a strong connection to music. Music engages the brain in unique and powerful ways and provides an “exercise” like no other activity. Music is fascinating because it is complex and connects to memory and the brain in a way that very few things can do.
For example, the very ability to hear the rhythm and identify patterns within music requires different abilities of our brain than almost any other activity. As a Johns Hopkins University researcher noted3, “Music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It is based on the relationships between one note and the next. You may not realize it, but your brain has to do a lot of math to make sense of it. ”
Music and memory
For all of us, music can have a powerful impact on memory and generate strong emotional reactions. For older people, even those with cognitive deficits and challenges, music can trigger memories that cannot be accessed in other ways. Music can also improve cognitive processing speed. Research suggestsQuarter that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key areas of the brain related to musical memory are relatively intact by the disease. In these patients, as in anyone else, music can relieve stress and reduce anxiety, depression, and agitation. Similar benefits are seen in stroke patients5– Music therapy helps by regulating mood, improving concentration, and changes in the brain to improve function (neural reorganization). Music can even result in physical benefits, including improved arm function and gait.
Music and the aging population
While music is beneficial for people of all ages, it is a critical, but often overlooked, tool for our aging population. As with anyone, music can help recall iconic memories, and revisiting them is incredibly beneficial for brain health. There are also several apps and programs that allow older people to try out a new instrument, like playing the piano, for example. When residents in long-term care facilities are given the opportunity to try and learn something new, it not only helps with the challenges of boredom and isolation, but there are also brain benefits to increasing exposure to something different.
Related content: Science sheds light on the evolution of music and languageme
From one long-term care facility to another, the incorporation of music into a resident’s daily activities can vary. Some facility activity directors are more proactive, playing music for residents even during the pandemic when musical guests were not allowed on site. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has finally subsided in the US, many long-term care facilities are bringing back music show guests for their residents.
Play music during other activities, such as puzzles or manicures,
for example, it can even have a positive impact on the happiness, engagement, and cognitive health of residents.
Music for seniors
To increase older people’s exposure to music, some organizations, such as Music and memorySixth – help facilitate access to music for older people in nursing homes. There are also several ways to volunteer and donate so that seniors, particularly those with low incomes and unable to pay for their own purchases, have greater access to music via smartphones, tablets, or radios.
Keep Your Brain Young with Music, John Hopkins Medicine. Health
Amy Novotney. American Psychological Association. November 2013, Vol 44, No. 10. Music as medicine
Keep your brain young with music and health. John Hopkins Medicine. Health
Can Music Help Someone With Alzheimer’s? Mayo Clinic
Music Therapy Helps Stroke Patients, March 2020 Daily science
Music and Memory. https://musicandmemory.org
Eden Brown, Psy.D.
Dr. Eden Brown is a licensed clinical psychologist. He got his Psy.D. at the Florida Institute of Technology.
She is currently the clinical director of MediTelecare where he provides specialized behavioral telehealth services in trauma and health psychology.
In addition to his current position at MediTelecare, his wide range of clinical experience includes:
• 10 years of private practice
• 5 years at the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC, where he served as a member of the psychological combat trauma team.