If you want to do something good for your brain, turn on the music player and sing some songs. Better yet, sing and dance at the same time.
It seems like a simple exercise, but in reality it is quite a workout for the brain. This happens because music stimulates many brain areas, such as those responsible for memory, movement and mood, according to a new report from the AARP-funded Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). Music even stimulates the activity of various brain areas at the same time sound bath training.
“Nothing activates the brain like music,” says Jonathan Burdette, professor of neuroradiology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and a contributor to the GCBH report.
All that brain activation produces important health benefits. Researchers have revealed that music can improve sleep and memory, as well as relieve stress and stimulate thinking skills, all of which help us maintain brain health as we age.
“Music makes everything we know about brain health easier,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president of Brain Health and Policy at AARP and executive director of GCBH. “It makes the medicine taste better.”
Music lifts the mood and inspires movement
When music reaches the ears, the sound waves are converted into nerve impulses that travel to various areas of the brain, including those that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of pleasure, explains Psyche Loui, associate professor in the department of music from Northeastern University and director of the Imaging and Neural Dynamics (MIND) Laboratory.
In other words, listening to music “makes you feel better,” says Burdette, who points out that when it comes to its mood-lifting benefits, no type of music is better than another. It all depends on personal preference, whether it’s Mozart or Madonna.
A 2020 AARP survey of 3,100 adults found that a higher percentage of people who listen to music 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 promotes social interactions, another benefit for the brain. When adults sing or perform together, they feel less loneliness and have a better quality of life compared to 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). Furthermore, according to previous GCBH studies, both social ties and improved mental well-being are associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and better brain health.
In addition to lifting your mood , music promotes movement, which is another key component of brain health. Recent research reveals that one of the best ways to protect brain health as you age is to adopt a lifestyle of healthier habits that include frequent physical activity . And music can be a pleasurable way to get exercise, warns the GCBH. Music can make working out seem easier and help speed recovery after intense exercise, the report’s authors explain.
“Music favors this balance between creativity and predictability, and I believe that it helps the brain to learn, which produces satisfaction,” says Loui, a GCBH collaborator. “I also think balance is very good for the brain, especially as we age.”
Music also has therapeutic powers
Experts are harnessing the power of music to help adults recover from brain illnesses and injuries and relieve the symptoms they cause.
One of the examples can be seen in rehabilitation after a stroke . Many adults who suffer a stroke lose the ability to speak. However, they can often still sing, and music therapists can help stroke survivors regain 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 aspect of music and dance is that their rhythmic structure provides an external beat or pulse” that can help the brain restore movement that has deteriorated, according to UCSF’s Johnson.
With older adults suffering from dementia , caregivers and therapists use music to evoke memories. For example, a song from childhood can help a patient remember people and places from that time in her life. Music can also be used to treat the agitation caused by dementia, “which can manifest in aggression, wandering, restlessness and other inappropriate behaviors,” according to the GCBH report.
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Music can improve brain health now
The best news from the report is that it takes very little time, money and effort to realize the benefits that music provides to the brain. Among other things, the report recommends singing and dancing more, listening to new and familiar songs, and making music with others.
Of course, playing an instrument is also good for the brain, because it requires the use of many cognitive skills, such as attention and memory. “But not everyone can do it,” notes Wake Forrest’s Burdette. “And I don’t want anyone to feel bad about not learning to play the violin at 75.” Instead, she points out, it’s about making a place for music in your life in a more general way. Even just listening to music has its benefits, says AARP’s Lock.
Looking to the future
Studies exploring the effect of music 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 the benefits of music on a wide variety of health disorders. Still, experts say more work needs to be done to fully understand the potential preventive and therapeutic benefits of music for brain health.
“By nature, we know that music is powerful. But the fact that we don’t have more evidence is surprising,” says Lock.
The GCBH report warns that more studies are needed to determine whether music can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia , for example, and whether music can affect reasoning skills. Lock would also like to see research conducted into how music can offer more direct relief for dementia sufferers and their caregivers. “For me, the most important thing would be the investigation of significant outcomes and the possibility of music improving those outcomes,” she adds.