Music has healing powers, too
Experts are harnessing the power of music to help adults recover from brain injuries and diseases and to ease the symptoms they cause.
One example can be seen in stroke rehabilitation. Many adults who suffer a stroke lose their ability to speak. Oftentimes, however, they can still sing, and music therapists can help stroke survivors regain their speech through singing. Similarly, many adults with Parkinson's disease struggle to walk, but music and dance can strengthen movement and improve gait.
"The unique thing about music and dance is its rhythmic nature provides an external source for meter or pulse,” which can help the brain restore impaired movement, the UCSF's Johnson says.
For older adults with dementia, caregivers and therapists use music to trigger memories. A song from someone's childhood, for example, can help the patient recall people and places from that time in her life. Music can also be used to treat dementia agitation, “which may take the form of aggressiveness, wandering, restlessness and other undesirable behaviors,” the GCBH report states.
Music can improve brain health now
The best news from the report is that it takes very little time, money and effort to reap the brain benefits that music provides. Recommendations from the report include singing and dancing more, listening to new and familiar tunes, and engaging in music with others.
Of course, playing an instrument is good for the brain, too, as it requires the use of many cognitive skills, such as attention and memory. “But not everybody can do that,” Wake Forest's Burdette observes. “And I don't want people to feel bad if they're not learning how to play the violin at age 75.” Rather, he says, it's about making a little room in your life for music, more broadly. Even just listening to music has its benefits, AARP's Lock says.
Looking to the future
Studies exploring music's impact on health and well-being have come a long way in recent years. Last September the National Institutes of Health announced a $20 million investment to support research into music's benefits for a wide range of medical disorders. Even so, experts say more needs to be done to fully understand the protective and healing benefits music can have on brain health.
"We inherently understand that music is powerful. But the fact that we don't have more proof of it is surprising,” Lock says.
The GCBH report notes that more studies are needed to understand whether music can reduce risk for cognitive decline and dementia, for example, and whether music can affect reasoning skills. Lock would also like to see research on how music can provide more immediate relief for dementia sufferers and their caregivers. “To me, research about outcomes that matter and music's ability to improve those outcomes would be the most important part,” she adds.
Choir Helps Stroke Survivors Regain Their Voice