woman relaxed wearing headphonesMost of us probably don’t think of music as a form of medicine or treatment, but you’d be surprised.  Studies have shown that music can have long-term cognitive, emotional and social benefits in many areas of healthcare.  In fact, music therapy is being utilized more and more in the treatment of neurological disorders such as dementia, stroke and Alzheimer’s, as it has been proven to increase competence and memory.
Listening to music and singing along to music can actually reduce social isolation issues that the older community faces, reduce depression and anxiety, and benefit their overall emotional well-being and cognitive function. For those able to play an instrument, that is encouraged as well. When you play an instrument, that activity becomes almost like a brain workout or exercise.  Different areas of the brain become engaged.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that music engages:
-Temporal lobe (auditory processing)
-Frontal lobe (cognitive skills)
-Parietal lobe (sensory processing)
-Cerebellum (coordination & balance)
-Limbic/Paralimbic system (memory & emotion)
This network within the brain plays a huge role in emotional development, problem solving, social interaction, communication, and cognitive development.  Unlike most other sensory–motor activities, music performance requires precise timing of several hierarchically organized actions, as well as precise control over pitch interval production, implemented through diverse effectors according to the instrument involved (Nat Rev Neurosci. 2007 Jul;8(7):547).
Listening to songs either alone or in a group can enhance concentration and can be cognitively stimulating.  Hearing familiar music from childhood or as a young adult can often evoke memories and cause people to associate different things from their past.  Continuous musical activity can aid in maintaining a better orientation to the current environment as well, as seen with many elderly people in assisted living homes.
Both singing and listening to music can improve short-term and working memory.  Behavioral and neuroimaging studies have shown that singing employs the brain regions associated with working memory, thus guiding any decision-making behaviors.

Repeated exposure to musical activities has also been shown to induce neuroplastic changes in the brain.  Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life.  With increased neurotransmitters present, that means there are more “chemical messengers” available to transmit signals throughout the brain.  Therefore, auditory, cognitive and motor skills improve.  This has been shown most recently in stroke and Parkinson’s patients.
The emotional impact of music corresponds to the medial and subcortical regions of the brain.  These “older” regions mature early in life and have a tendency to deteriorate last (as seen in Alzheimer’s disease).  The prefrontal cortex is a part of this region, and is a center for connecting memories and emotions with music.
The preservation of this part of the brain is crucial, and is also the reason why familiar music can bring back memories even for people in the most advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Various studies of women’s issues in mental health treatment have also shown that exposure to music can decrease anxiety and depression experienced by both the person suffering from the neurological disorder and the family members who may be burdened by the care.  Singing has been found to reduce the psychological burden experienced by family members and loved ones.
It is without question that more research needs to be done in the field of neurological disorders, including causes and treatments.  Just recently (June 2017), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and The John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts launched Sound Health partnership, which aims to provide studies for music-based rehabilitation strategies.  This partnership is an expansion of an initial movement that NIH had with the National Symphony Orchestra called Sound Health.  The goals are to expand knowledge on music therapy and identify research opportunities for treating neurological disorders.  Please click here to read more about Sound Health and their mission.

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Sihvonen, Aleksi J et al. Music-based interventions in neurological rehabilitation. Lancet Neurol. 2017 Aug;16(8):648-660.
NIH Website – Sound Health
Music Therapy image borrowed from The Score website