Music & Aging: Benefits for Seniors

For the last month of so we’ve looked at a lot of different ways music can benefit human lives. We’ve looked at how learning to play music can help other areas of the brain develop in new and amazing ways. We’ve looked at how music effects the way we perceive pain, music’s role in memory and learning, and how music interacts with our brains in general. We’ve even discussed some of the general mental and physical health benefits that come from just listening to music. In keeping with the last month or so’s theme of the plethora of benefits to our lives from music, this week we’re going to take a look at a specific group of people, seniors, and how they can benefit from music in some unique ways. Seniors and the elderly can still reap most, if not all, of the mental and physical health benefits we went over in last week’s blog Just Listen: The Heath Benefits of Music, but for this particular group of people, music can do a little bit more to help improve and maintain a higher quality of life.

The majority of the scientific research that has gone into the potential health benefits music holds for older individuals has largely fallen into two basic categories: benefits for everyday life, and the role of music in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Let’s begin with day-to-day benefits.

One of the most basic benefits of music is something that can be utilized by any age group, but becomes, perhaps, a bit more important with age; music is a fantastic boredom reliever. With age often comes some mobility problems, many times leaving seniors with little to do but sit with their thoughts. Boredom sets in easily, and can be followed by depression or ennui. For those with hearing loss, this problem can become compounded further, leading to a sense of social disconnection and loneliness.

Music relieves these symptoms by giving the brain something exciting to do. Even seniors with hearing impairment can participate, thought their volume may need adjusting!

And what naturally flows from listening to exciting music, getting your brain bouncing around? The next benefit that is even more important for older people: physical movement. Music just makes you want to move! Maybe it’s just a toe tapping, or maybe it’s got you clapping your hands, maybe you even feel the urge to dance! Research has shown that even the smallest bit of movement can be enough to release bottled up psychological and physical stress. And it gets better the more you move! For a lot of older music enthusiasts dancing makes for wonderful exercise, and it can help promote healthy organ function and lowers blood pressure.

Blood pressure if often a significant concern for seniors, and it can go hand it hand with a number of other difficulties, like nervousness. Music can help with this as well. Just like singing a lullaby for a fussy infant, or listening to your favorite song after a hard day, music can also help to calm the nerves of the elderly. As with any situation where defusing tension or stress is needed, slow, peaceful music works best to bring out a calming sense of well-being. Older, fragile nervous systems can be sensitive to sensory overload, and music therapy can help to isolate and calm them.

Of course, calming nerves and lowering blood pressure are not the only ways music can help with the mental health of seniors. Sometimes the passage of time leaves people longing for the past, for times gone by. This kind of thinking can be dangerous to the psyche, leading to negative thoughts and possibly depression. Music, with it’s strong connection to both human emotions and memories, can serve as a bridge between times, while also fending off negative thoughts and feelings. Seniors most often respond best to music from their own day and time, for example, a crooner like Frank Sinatra might conjure up happy memories of champagne and fun. While some may fear this to lead to living in the past, music’s ability to shift negative thinking patterns does a fair job of preventing that. It’s just hard to be negative when listening to music. Happy music has a knack for hanging around in our minds and promoting happy, positive thinking.

And, of course, when your thoughts are positive, and your memories are happy, you want to share them with friends. Which brings us to the next benefit music has for seniors, social interaction. Sometimes senors may find it difficult to make connections with others, but music has been a social activity since man kind first figured out how of bang two rocks together. The love of music has brought people together for eons, and continues to do so for countless people. Music is something simple everyone can latch onto, easing social interactions. Relationships and companionship is so important in the later half of life, and music provides the perfect forum to cultivate them.

 

And now it’s time for the other half of the research, the half dedicated to the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease. There is no known cure for the disorder which attacks memory, but there are several treatment methods, all aimed at improving the quality of life for the sufferer. One such treatment is music therapy.

Music’s amazing abilities to alter mood, manage stress, coordinate motor functions, and improve cognition can still all be utilized by an individual in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. This is because none of these benefits require any cognitive thought from the patient. The brain automatically responds to the stimuli (i.e. the music), and responds accordingly. It is because of this little trick of our brains that specialists can use music to change an Alzheimer’s patient’s behaviour, or even provide some memory context for periods of clarity. The best choices for music for this kind of therapy should come from the patient’s early adult years. Songs taken from the time they were 18 to 25 usually show the best responses. As the disease progresses however, it may be better to go even further back into their childhood to promote interaction with the music, like singing a childhood nursery rhyme.

One of the main areas music is used with Alzheimer’s is with controlling behaviour and emotional turmoil. One of the unfortunate effects of the disease is a profound increase in agitation and irritability. This comes as a result of the confusion they feel as they try to process their world. Music has the power to not only help calm them, but redirect their focus away from the frustration, and onto something familiar.

The other major use for music therapy is to help provide an emotional connection with others. As Alzheimer’s progresses, its victims often become more withdrawn. They lose their ability to accurately, or even adequately communicate their thoughts and emotions, and they often can’t even recognize their own spouses of children. This makes it extremely difficult to form emotional connections, compounding the problem further. Music, however, can be the social lubricant to help create that connection. Music allows for a closeness other situations do not, like the embrace or kiss of a couple dancing. Even just singing along with someone can provide that critical emotional closeness.

Each of these benefits that music can provide seniors with stems from a benefit we have already discussed in past articles, but they become that much more important later in life. Psychological, physical, and even social benefits become even more crucial to positive well-being with age. The benefits that come from music are indeed far reaching. From the womb, through school, into adulthood, and well into our twilight years, music has countless gifts to bestow upon those willing to do little more than listen.