Fresh out of graduate school, I was in the first rotation of my internship at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical
Center (DC VAMC). The rotation was in the nursing home care unit, where the VAMC had an amazing music and movement
therapist. The therapist, who was previously a professional dancer until a career-ending car accident, was working with
a dementia group. The residents within the group were completely introverted; each patient was in his or her own world,
disconnected from one another.
Music and the association to brain
In what was – and remains – a pivotal moment in my life and career, the therapist put on music. As soon as the music
began, a gentleman stood up and began waltzing with the therapist. The two waltzed for the entire song, and soon as the
music ended, the resident went back to his seat. He immediately curled back into himself; whatever the music had
released within him seemingly evaporated as soon as the song concluded.
It was at this moment that I understood firsthand the brain’s strong association with music; few activities stimulate
the brain in the way that music does, as music travels along different pathways than other forms of communication. Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow said, “music is the universal language of mankind” – and I have thought of this quote often in my
career as a licensed clinical psychologist. Music can have a tremendous impact on healthy aging – most critically, a
person’s cognitive health. Even for our elderly population, music can have significant positive health effects both
physically and emotionally.
Music is a medicine with no side effects
Music can be the best medicine, and unlike nearly any other medication, it has no bad side effects. It has the proven
ability to lower stress (cortisol) levels, change and improve mood, increase levels of motivation and productivity, and
connect us socially. Research also shows 1 that music has the power to lower blood
pressure, decrease anxiety, reduce our perception of pain, and improve sleep quality, mood, alertness level, and memory.
Listening to and playing music also increases2 the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and
natural killer cells – the cells that attack invading viruses and boost the immune system’s effectiveness.
Even for young and healthy individuals, a “memory playlist” including meaningful songs from childhood, adolescence, and
adulthood can be beneficial to one’s cognitive health long term. To develop a memory playlist, research popular songs
for certain times within your life, and select those that resonate most with certain memories.
Related Content: The Healing Power of Music in a Physician’s Life
It is also important and beneficial to listen to new music and styles outside of normal listening choices; like any
other activity, listening to only a few songs on repeat doesn’t create the same opportunities for growth. New music
creates cognitive challenges that familiar music does not – and that unfamiliarity forces our brains to work to
understand the new sounds and rhythms.
Music’s association with cognitive health
The human brain has a strong connection to music. Music engages the brain in unique and powerful ways and provides a
“workout” unlike any other activity. Music is fascinating because it’s complex, and it taps into memory and the brain in
a way that very few other things can.
For example, the very ability to listen to rhythm and identify patterns within music requires different skills from our
brain than almost any other activity. As noted by a researcher at Johns Hopkins University3, “music is
structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be
aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.”
Music and memory
For all of us, music can have a powerful impact on memory and tap into strong emotional reactions. For seniors – even
those with cognitive challenges and deficits – music can trigger memories that cannot be accessed in other ways.
Music can also improve cognitive processing speed. Research suggests4 that listening to or singing songs can provide
emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are
relatively undamaged by the disease. In these patients – much like any other person – music can relieve stress and
reduce anxiety, depression, and agitation. Similar benefits are seen in stroke patients5: music therapy helps through mood regulation,
improved concentration, and changes in the brain to improve function (neural reorganization). Music can even result in
physical benefits including improved arm function and gait.
Music and the aging population
Though music is beneficial to people of all ages, it is a critical but often overlooked tool for our aging population.
As with anyone, music can help recall iconic memories, and revisiting those is incredibly beneficial for brain health.
There are also several apps and programs that allow seniors to test out a new instrument – such as playing the piano,
for example. When residents in long-term care facilities are afforded the opportunity to try and learn something new, it
not only helps with boredom and isolation challenges but there are also brain benefits to increasing exposure to
Related Content: Science Shines a Light on the Evolution of Music and Language
From one long-term care facility to another, the incorporation of music within a resident’s everyday activities can
vary. Some facility activity directors are more proactive and played music for residents even during the pandemic when
musical guests weren’t allowed on-site. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has finally subsided within the U.S., many
long-term care facilities are bringing back musical performance guests for their residents.
Playing music during other activities – such as
puzzles or manicures,
for example – can even have a positive impact
on resident happiness, engagement, and cognitive health.
Music for seniors
To increase seniors’ exposure to music, some organizations – such as Music & Memory6 – help facilitate access to music for seniors in
nursing homes. There are also several ways to volunteer and donate so that seniors – particularly those who are
low-income and cannot afford to make purchases of their own – have increased access to music through smartphones,
tablets, or radios.
Keep Your Brain Young with Music, Health. John Hopkins Medicine.
Amy Novotney. Music as medicine, American Psychological Association. November 2013, Vol 44, No. 10.
Keep Your Brain Young with Music, Health. John Hopkins Medicine. Health
Can music help someone with Alzheimer’s? Mayo Clinic
Music therapy helps stroke patients, Science Daily, Mar 2020.
Music and Memory. https://musicandmemory.org
Eden Brown, Psy.D.
Dr. Eden Brown is a licensed Clinical Psychologist. She earned her M.S. and Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology.
She is presently the Clinical Director at MediTelecare where she provides behavioral telehealth services specializing in trauma and health psychology.
In addition to her present position at MediTelecare, her broad range of clinical experience which includes:
• 12 years of private practice
• 5 years at the Washington, DC VA Medical Center, where she functioned as the psychologist on the combat trauma team and served as the Associate Director of the Internship Program.
• 4 years teaching clinical courses at graduate-level programs
Some of her other interests include writing, playing music, and cooking.
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