Whether it is big band swing, rock ‘n’ roll, a string quartet performing a concerto, or a trip to the Chicago Blues Festival, most of us enjoy music. You might think of music as just a pleasant way to pass the time, but cutting-edge neurology tells us otherwise! Researchers are learning more each year about the amazing powers of music—and a big part of this is the way music promotes healthy aging and a sense of well-being for seniors, no matter what their health condition.

One fascinating finding is that music gives our minds a good workout. Modern imaging shows that various parts of our brain react to music, which can build new neurons and connections and make the brain more resilient. Emory University researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD, reported, “Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging.”

Another study, this one from Northwestern University, confirmed that musical training promotes memory health. The researchers also found that listening to music can enhance hearing by improving our ability to perceive speech in a noisy environment—a common as age-related hearing impairment occurs.

Music affects the mind and body physically, influencing brain waves, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and muscle tone. It provides many other important health benefits for older adults. For example:

  • Music can improve our emotional state. It can uplift the spirit. It can reduce anxiety, stress and agitation. Music which is associated with pleasant memories can be a source of relaxation. And the therapeutic use of music has been shown to be effective in reducing depression.
  • Music can decrease the perception of pain. It provides distraction from aches and illness. Listening to music that a person enjoys can actually raise the level of endorphins (brain chemicals linked with a feeling of well-being).
  • Music has the capacity to reach hidden brain areas. It is stored differently in the brain than are speech and memory. This is why people with an impaired ability to speak or carry on a conversation due to a condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or Parkinson’s disease may still be able to sing.
  • Music serves as a storehouse for memories. Pictures, thoughts and vivid recollections can all be encoded in the mind with music. Music helps people with memory loss access these memories, and also become more aware of the present, their surroundings and other people.
  • Music encourages us to exercise and be more active. What’s more fun, calisthenics or dancing? With the addition of music, movements become a pleasure rather than a chore.
  • Music can improve sleep quality. Studies show that seniors who have sleep problems often experience improvement after listening to soft music at bedtime.
  • Music brings people together. People who play or listen to music as a group have been shown to experience the same neurological responses to the rhythms and mood. This can result in a feeling of connection and togetherness that is familiar to concertgoers or congregations at a faith community. Joining together in a musical environment brings unity to people of different abilities and of different generations, helping us interact with others and feel part of a group.
  • Music provides a sense of meaning and fulfillment. Studies show that most of us have our own strong musical tastes, with which we often identify. Reacting to music in one’s own way builds self-esteem.
  • Music provides comfort at the end of life. Hospice organizations recommend the use of appropriate, personalized music to help meet the physical, emotional and psychosocial needs of patients who are dealing with a life-limiting illness.

So bring out your old instrument, or learn to play a new one! Go to a live musical event! Or, even in your own home, with today’s music-playing devices, we have access to a world of music at our fingertips.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Consult your doctor with questions about brain health and other healthy aging topics.

Copyright © AgeWise, 2014