Music can have a profound impact on brain health | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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October 21, 2020

Music can have a profound impact on brain health

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin

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Music has been with us since ancient times. It has framed the cultures, rituals and celebrations of our lives. It’s a universal language that brings people together. Now, researchers are discovering the reasons why music can have such a profound impact on our brains and bodies.

AARP convened the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) in February of 2020 to explore the impact of music on brain health. Each year, GCBH reviews research to give older adults the best possible advice for maintaining brain health.  Let’s review some of their findings and recommendations for engaging in music to improve brain health.

Research shows that music can bring us a sense of well-being and calm, reduce stress, facilitate our connections with others, improve balance and boost the immune system. Music has been found to have a positive effect on heart rate and blood pressure and can improve the quality and length of sleep. And there are no side effects!

Music seems to do this by engaging many different parts of the brain simultaneously. Have you ever noticed that certain songs can bring back strong memories of times long ago? Memories that are connected to music are more durable and often remain intact even in people with dementia.

This is one of the reasons music-based treatment is now more common for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The act of singing, listening, dancing and playing music can reduce stress and increase morale. Evidence also suggests music-based treatment may improve movement and recovery in patients with Parkinson’s disease and stroke, and that singing may help people who have suffered a stroke regain language function.

The GCBH created a list of recommendations for using music to improve brain health.  These tips are useful for everyone, not just people with memory and thinking problems.

  • Incorporate music into your daily life to reap all the benefits it has to offer.
  • Dance, sing and move to the music. Let music encourage you to exercise.
  • Listen to familiar music that comforts you.  Imaging research shows music you know elicits the strongest brain response.
  • Try listening to new music to stimulate your brain.
  • Learn to play an instrument to stimulate thinking skills.
  • Use music to encourage mindfulness and minimize negative thinking.
  • Caregivers can use music to help reduce anxiety, depression or agitation in their loved ones.

There is strong evidence that music appreciation is preserved longer than other skills in people with dementia. Alzheimer’s patients have reported remembering music from their youth. This finding is backed up by imaging studies that show these familiar songs activate areas of the brain typically not impacted by dementia until later stages of the disease.

The GCBH report emphasizes that more research is needed to fully understand the link between music and brain health. The experts are hopeful, however, that music may be able to help improve and maintain attention, reasoning, memories and understanding. So turn up the tunes and dance to the music.