In the past few years, we’ve reported discoveries about how engaging in musical activities like singing, learning to play a musical instrument, and even simply listening to your favorite songs can improve the health of your brain and reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
And the research field into the link between music and a sharper memory is expanding quickly. Now there’s even more evidence about how we can use music to promote cognitive function, better physical health, and even recovery from illness.
Music is becoming well-known for boosting the therapeutic power of certain treatments to improve the function of the brain and nervous system.
For example, when researchers in Switzerland added music to the cognitive behavioral therapy for treating pathological nightmare disorder, it significantly improved its effectiveness.
Help For Nightmares
In today’s fast-paced, high-stress, modern world, pathological nightmare disorder – which occurs when you have pathologically frightening dreams again and again – has become a disturbingly frequent problem. It is estimated that it afflicts around ten million Americans.
Nightmares are considered pathological when they affect your daily life, cause excessive fatigue, dysphoria (intrusive unhappiness) and anxiety.
Cognitive therapy for the problem entails learning to fight off the nightmares by focusing on positive alternative images. The Swiss researchers found that by merely adding the background sound of one, simple piano chord during therapy and having the piano recording played later, during dreaming, benefits of therapy increased.
After the therapy ended, the benefits of combining the therapy plus the music persisted and resulted in a sustained decrease in the number of nightmares after three months.1
But perhaps most exciting is that the science suggests adding music to cognitive behavioral therapy for any number of mental health challenges, not just a nightmare disorder, might improve the outcome.
If that’s not enough, there’s the new research reinforcing the benefits of music for people who are already suffering from memory loss and cognitive dysfunction.
Pushing Back Against Memory Issues
A review study by researchers in Japan found that music “interventions” – which can entail merely listening to music or participating in musical activities like singing or playing an instrument – increases executive function abilities (mental focus and planning abilities) and general cognitive function in folks with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.2
The researchers conclude that music therapy should be more widely used since it produces no harmful side effects, unlike drugs used to treat dementia.
Supporting Better Health
In addition to this research, studies show music supports better heart health. And you need great heart health to keep your brain on top of its game.
For instance, when researchers in Germany reviewed the benefits of music for heart patients, they found that relaxing music lowers stress and levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – and they urge healthcare practitioners to provide classical music after heart surgery. One caveat: they caution that heavy metal or techno music should not be used – they can cause life-threatening arrhythmias. We’re not surprised!3
According to researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin, music can support better heart health through its influence on the autonomic nervous system, which includes the nerves that control things like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. Although they add that much still needs to be learned about how this musical influence works.4
Music Helps Your Health In Many Other Ways
Other new research into the benefits of music show that it can:
- Increase the effectiveness of anti-nausea medications: A study at Michigan State indicates that music can help ease the nausea brought on by chemotherapy. According to one of the researchers, “Music listening interventions are like over-the-counter medications.”5
- Help relieve social anxiety just as well as drugs, but without the side effects: Research in Israel demonstrates that a simple exercise of following certain images on a screen accompanied by music works for anxiety just as well as pharmaceuticals.6
- Lower the risk of delirium in seniors after surgery: Delirium is a confused and disoriented state that can occur after medical procedures and is connected to faster cognitive decline. Studies show that listening to music can calm seniors – who are especially vulnerable to post-operative delirium – and lower the risk of being agitated during and after medical care.7
We’re still only scratching the surface of understanding all the health benefits of learning, playing, and even listening to music.
Plus, researchers are hard at work trying to better understand which parts of the brain play the most important roles in producing the emotions we connect with music we love. But just because we don’t entirely understand the particular neuronal responses linked to music doesn’t mean you can’t put music to work right now to help you stay sharp in body and mind. In fact, we encourage it!
The Awakening From Alzheimer’s Team