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New AARP Report Shows Power of Music on the Brain

Sing, dance, move to the beat: It's all good for mood, memory and more

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If you want to do something good for your brain, turn on your music player and sing along to a few songs. Better yet, sing and dance at the same time.

It sounds like a simple exercise, but, really, it's a full brain workout. That's because music stimulates many areas of the brain, including those responsible for memory, movement and mood, according to a new report from the AARP-founded Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). Music even gets different parts of the brain working together simultaneously.

How Music Can Keep Your Brain Healthy

"Nothing activates the brain like music,” says Jonathan Burdette, a professor of neuroradiology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and a contributor to the GCBH report.

And all that brain activation translates into some serious health benefits. Researchers have found that music can improve sleep and sharpen memory, as well as reduce stress and stimulate thinking skills — all of which are good for maintaining brain health as we age.

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"Music makes everything we know about improving your brain easier,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy and brain health at AARP and executive director of the GCBH. “It makes the medicine go down."

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Music boosts mood, inspires movement

When music hits your ears, the sound waves are translated into nerve impulses that travel to several areas of the brain, including those that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure, explains Psyche Loui, an assistant professor in the department of music at Northeastern University and director of the Music, Imaging and Neural Dynamics (MIND) Laboratory.

Music makes everything we know about improving your brain easier. It makes the medicine go down.

—Sarah Lenz Lock, executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health

In other words, when you hear music, “it makes you feel better,” says Burdette, who emphasizes that one type of music isn't superior to others when it comes to its mood-boosting benefits. It all boils down to personal preference, be it Mozart or Madonna.

A 2020 AARP survey of more than 3,100 adults found that a higher percentage of people who engage in music self-rate aspects of their quality of life and happiness as excellent or very good. They also report lower average levels of anxiety and depression.

What's more, music facilitates social interactions — another boon for the brain. When adults sing or perform together, they experience less loneliness and a better quality of life, compared with adults who don't create music with others, says Julene Johnson, a professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). And both strong social ties and improved mental well-being are associated with reduced risks for cognitive decline and improved brain health, previous reports from the GCBH have found.

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Along with improving mood, music promotes movement — another key component to brain health. Emerging research shows that one of the best ways to protect the health of your brain as you age is to embrace healthy lifestyle habits, including regular physical activity. And music can be an enjoyable way to get in that exercise, the GCBH notes. Music can even make exercise seem easier and help speed up recovery after a hard workout, the report's authors explain.

"Music enables this balance between creativity and predictability, and I think that helps the brain learn, and it feels rewarding,” GCBH contributor Loui says. “And I think that balance is really good for the brain, especially in aging.”

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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

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