The healing power of music therapy in correlation with brain health

June 22, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY T MICHELE WALKER – Science is finally catching up with what musicians have known since the dawn of time. Singing heals and is beneficial for our emotional, physical, and cognitive well-being.
Ruth Henson experienced the magic of music therapy first-hand when she was caring for her father. “About a year ago,” Ruth explained, “My 87-year-old father was in a rehabilitation center, recovering from another bout of pneumonia. He was starting to experience physical decline, no longer able to use his walker and reliant on a wheelchair.”
The changes in her father were not just physical, but Ruth was devastated to find that he was experiencing severe memory loss. “My father, who was always the sharpest tool in the shed, was also starting to face cognitive decline. He wasn’t himself and couldn’t remember visitors. It was heartbreaking.”
Ruth would visit her father every day so that she could make sure he was getting out of bed and getting fresh air. As Ruth explained, “I was wheeling him around the rehab corridors, attempting to get him up and about when the Peter, Paul, and Mary song, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ played over the speaker in the hallways. Always our favorite song, I began to sing and my dad, who also had hearing issues, sang along with me. ‘Dad, you sound so good,’ I raved, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. He sang in the church choir his entire life and had a beautiful tenor voice.”
After singing along to a second song, that is when Ruth noticed a significant change. “My dad was back. As if coming out of a haze, he was fully engaged, sharp, memories returned. It was like a miracle.”
Sadly, the lucidity Ruth’s father experienced didn’t last long. He took a nap and when he woke up, the dreaded fog was back.
“I noticed a piano covered up with a blanket, hiding away in the corner of the cafeteria,” Ruth explained. “And I asked for permission to use the piano between mealtimes. Once a day, I wheeled my father in and I’d play his favorite songs. We’d sing as dozens of wheelchairs filed in. They thought I was a part of the staff. We’d sing for a while and each time, my father was back, if only for a while.”
Ruth’s experience is extraordinary, but not unique. Music therapy is a relatively new science, at just 50 years old and the science behind the benefits of singing is staggering:

  • Magnesium is released when we breathe deeply.
  • Singing releases serotonin and dopamine, those feel-good chemicals necessary for balancing moods.
  • Endorphins are released when we sing that diminish pain, triggering an almost analgesic feeling in the body.
  • Cortisol is lowered.
  • Singing increases prolactin production, which helps to regulate the immune system.
  • Singers have more circuit connections between the right and left brain than nonsingers.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.
When Alzheimer’s and memory care patients are encouraged to sing along to songs from their youth, they respond in promising and surprising ways.
There is the story of Henry. In a now-famous YouTube video, Henry, an elderly man with dementia, is transformed by the power of music. Initially slumped in a chair and unable to recognize his daughter, Henry seems to be miraculously brought out of his haze by a few minutes of music from his youth: He gushes about his favorite jazz singer, sings a few verses in a rich baritone, and waxes poetic about how music makes him feel. After listening to music, he can suddenly communicate. Just like Ruth’s father.
A pioneer in the field of Music therapy for memory care patients, Teepa Snow, is an internationally recognized occupational therapist who founded Positive Approach to Care. Teepa Snow recommends two music interactions per day for optimum brain memory health and maintenance. Her program is cutting edge and is being adopted by the finest memory care facilities in the country.
The senior services industry demographic is in a time of change. What was once populated with the World War Two generation, we now find Baby Boomers moving in, who expect more from every stage of life. They also have the financial means to facilitate this and want to attempt to turn back the clock on aging.
The main goal is to battle the war against physical and cognitive decline.
“Move for Minds,” founded by Maria Shriver whose father died of Alzheimer’s disease, says that dementia and memory decline affects 5.8 million Americans, but there’s more hope than ever.
“Move for Minds” offers several tips to maintain brain health, and to along with music therapy. For instance, exercise, specifically dance aerobic is the most impactful way to protect your brain and stave off aging and memory decline.
Exercise builds up the hippocampus which is critical for long-term memory and is also where the plaque and tangles of Alzheimer’s begins. Work on balancing your body with practices like tai chi and yoga.
Meditate. Meditation, the Benjamin Button of disciplines, literally causes your brain to age backward.
A good example of the benefits of meditation is Steve Jobs, a daily practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. When Steve died at age 56, his brain was a young 27 due to his daily meditation habit.
Studies conducted at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, show that meditation for 30 minutes each day for eight weeks increases focus, self-confidence, regulates emotion to learn, memory, perspective empathy, compassion and lessens stress.
Some forward-thinking Independent and Assisted Living facilities are taking advantage of these new findings and incorporating music therapy into their programming. It’s paying off, as studies find that seniors who sing daily suffer less depression, have fewer doctor visits, need less medication, and have increased activity.
We have just scratched the surface in discovering what music therapy can do for the mind. And even if all that is achieved are a few more lucid moments with our aging loved ones, that is enough. Who wouldn’t move heaven and earth to have just one more moment with the ones we love.