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The Benefits of Music on the Mind and Body of Older Adults

There’s no denying the power of music. It can make us smile or cry. It inspires us to dance and move. It connects us and is the soundtrack to many important moments in our lives.

And research shows, music is also a powerful medicine—especially for older adults who are battling a variety of illnesses.

“Music holds the power to increase dopamine levels (happy hormones), decrease symptoms of depression and pain and improve a person’s quality of life,” said Tammy Reiver, a music therapy coordinator for Banner Hospice in Phoenix, AZ. “Pleasing music plays an important role at every age, but for aging adults, the benefits are even greater.”

Read on to learn more about the positive role music can play in older adults’ and their caregivers’ lives and how to incorporate it into everyday living.

Music and the brain

Research has shown that music literally does something to our brains. “Music and responses to music are found in all areas of the brain,” Reiver said. “It can engage the mind and evoke emotions.”

Some studies have shown that actively and passively listening to music can improve:

According to the National Institutes of Health, music has the power to evoke strong positive emotions and elevate your mood. Music can lower your body’s level of cortisol, a hormone that can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. It can also trigger other chemical reactions in the brain, stimulating positive feelings.

Music and disease and illness

For aging adults who have age-related memory issues—such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or Parkinson’s disease—music has the power to actually bring back memories, slow age-related cognitive decline and improve cognitive processing speed.

“When one area of our brain is affected by illness or injury, music cognition remains and the other areas of our brain continue to respond,” Reiver said. “Research also shows that our brain waves automatically synchronize with the music we’re listening to.”

Music is also excellent for people with Alzheimer’s, because it encourages engagement with the present. “Even if they can’t remember current events, Alzheimer’s patients can often move along with a beat and sing lyrics of familiar songs,” said Kristin Fray, a music therapy coordinator for Banner Hospice. “Music brings back memories and it provides mood uplift. It creates a way to interact with loved ones who may be unable to express themselves.”

For those battling cancer, music can reduce anxiety, depression, pain and fatigue. It helps them relax and handle their cancer treatments in a way no medication can. Research has shown that the same neurotransmitter used by our brains to send sensations of pain is also stimulated by sound; when both happen at the same moment, pain may not feel as intense.

Music and caregivers

Few people experience age-related disease or illness alone. It’s also experienced by those who love and care for them. Music can have a powerful effect on caregivers as well.

“Music opens up channels for communication and interaction,” Reiver said. “For families and caregivers, music can provide for togetherness, shared positive experiences and facilitate closure and acceptance.”

Music can also provide time for family members and caregivers to have a respite break, especially for family members who are the caregivers. “That sometimes ‘dual role’ of being the family member and caregiver can be mentally and physically exhausting,” Reiver said. “Music gives time for rest and relaxation.”

Infusing music into your everyday life

Older adults and caregivers can benefit greatly from music, and it’s something easy you can integrate at home and to engage with in your community. Fray shared some helpful tips for aging adults and their caregivers:

  • Join a music group with a loved one. There are choirs for those with Parkinson’s disease, dementia and cancer and for cancer survivors.
  • If you have a religious tradition, consider attending a religious service to sing spiritual hymns and songs.
  • Play music at certain times of the day in the background to stimulate mood.
  • For someone with Alzheimer’s disease, there are many ways to integrate music into their life.
    • Choose music they enjoyed as a teenager.
    • Encourage a loved one who previously played an instrument to try it again.
    • Watch a recording of a concert.
    • Sing along, dance and move to music together to boost energy.
    • Put on soft music in the evening to facilitate a calming transition to bedtime.

“Where words fail, music speaks,” said author Hans Christian Andersen. Music is truly a powerful tool in our lives, but it can be particularly impactful as we age. Even if your loved one’s words or memory fails, you can find and speak to one another through the power of music.

To learn more about caregiver support programs at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and Banner Sun Health Research Institute, visit bannerhealth.com.

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Alzheimers Disease and Dementia Senior Health Caregiving Hospice