Music can benefit mind, body and spirit in many ways

April 17, 2019

Q. I'm 66 and I'm thinking of taking up a musical instrument. I hear that this will be good for my health. Is this true?

Playing an instrument seems to improve your health in a variety of ways. I play the saxophone almost every day and can confirm that playing music definitely relieves stress. And stress can be bad for your mental and physical health.

There's a lot of evidence that playing music is good for you. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, playing an instrument as a child keeps the mind sharper as we age.

The study, done at the University of Kansas Medical Center, recruited 70 healthy adults age 60 to 83 who were divided into groups based on their levels of musical experience. The musicians performed better on several cognitive tests than individuals who had never studied an instrument or learned how to read music. The brain functions measured by the tests tend to decline with age.

“Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging,” said lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD. “Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older.”

There are benefits to starting an instrument in your later years, too.

"Music-making is linked to a number of health benefits for older adults," said Dr. Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "Research shows that making music can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce stress, and lessen anxiety and depression. There is also increasing evidence that making music enhances the immunological response, which enables us to fight viruses."

Hanser said that anyone, regardless of age or ability, can make music and benefit from it.

"People are not only living longer these days, they want to remain healthy and active for as long as possible," said Antoinette Follett, editor-in-chief of Making Music magazine. “Plus, there is an increasing focus in the medical community on the need to keep the brain as healthy as the body. This focus is as much about making the empty nest and retirement years fun and worthwhile as it is about preventing debilitating dementias such as Alzheimer's disease. Music making has the potential to do both."

In one study, participants between the ages of 45 and 65 underwent tests to measure their auditory memory and ability to recognize speech among noise. Eighteen people in the group were active musicians. The remaining people in the group were non-musicians. For the musicians, it was easier pick out a specific sound from competing noise.

Therapists have been using music to promote memory and a sense of self in the treatment of older adults with dementia.

“Music therapy has many faces,” said Kimmo Lehtonen, PhD, a clinical music therapist in Finland. “Music has a close relationship with unconscious emotions, which are activated by musical movement. To me, music represents a microcosmos which has a close relationship to our inner feelings. These feelings are so strong, they’re meaningful even if patients cannot remember who they are.”

John Carpente, founder and executive director of the Rebecca Center for Music Therapy in New York, believes music empowers people to emerge from the isolation imposed by Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

“Undoubtedly, it’s one of the most engaging and emotionally powerful stimuli,” said Carpente. “Listening to music can have strong effects on people's moods, thinking, and even their physiology.”

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