Carla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC
Music for Healthy Aging
Music is an integral part of our lives from the time we are born. Across cultures, parents sing lullabies to their babies, children learn songs to help them remember, and teenagers use music to connect with each other and form their identities. But did you know that music can also play a vital role in healthy aging?
The benefits of music support its use throughout adulthood into old age. In 2020, the Global Council on Brain Health concluded that listening to and making music can support brain health as people age. In fact, we have yet to discover an activity that engages more of our brain than music! Music is a powerful way to simulate multiple brain regions and benefits range from improvements in cognitive and mental wellbeing, to social connections, to immune and cardiovascular benefits.
One of the key benefits of music is that it takes advantage of neuroplasticity - our brain's ability to form new pathways throughout life. Because music activates our brain in unique ways, it can even provide access to areas that are damaged. For example, people who have lost the ability to speak due to stroke or brain injury in the verbal center of the brain may still be able to sing. This is because singing and speaking are not processed on the same brain pathways, so therapists can use music therapy techniques to help people improve their speech and communication.
Music has the ability to trigger memories. Musical memory is typically preserved longer than other abilities in people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Listening to favorite songs can activate specific brain regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions, which can provide comfort, pleasure, and connection for older adults. Some evidence suggests that active engagement in music (learning an instrument or working with a music therapist) may boost memory and provide protective effects against dementia.
In addition to the cognitive benefits, music also has significant social benefits. Sharing music creates an instant feeling of connection, and as we age, social connections often decrease. Music provides a way to reawaken and strengthen those bonds. Whether it's joining a choir or band, singing with grandchildren, or attending a concert, music can provide a way to connect with others and improve social bonds.
Music also benefits to our bodies and motor systems. Music has rhythm, and rhythm gets people moving. We naturally pair physical activities with music: dance, marching, working, and sports. Studies find that when people listen to music, they run father, pedal faster, and work out longer. Songs that match the tempo of your movements and have a strong beat can help synchronize movements and even help your body move more efficiently.
In each moment, music offers the opportunity to sing along, to dance or tap our toes, or just to let the sounds wash away stress or worry. Music has measurable effects on physiological measures, including heart rate, respirations, and blood pressure. With all the benefits that music brings, we all should be looking for more ways to integrate more music into our lives.
If you are looking for professional support, music therapy is a credentialed healthcare profession where trained therapists help people use the benefits of music to reach health, wellness and rehabilitative goals. A music therapist can help you determine what musical activities and interventions are most useful for your needs and goals.