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Boosting brain health with music

Boosting Brain Health With Music

Al Waller: Bob Marley once said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” I suspect that if you've had a particularly rough day then gone home and cranked up some tunes and subsequently found yourself feeling good afterwards, you'd have to agree that Marley’s sentiment was spot on. As a matter of fact, there's research indicating that listening to music actually improves our mental wellbeing and boosts our physical health in a number of ways.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With us to discuss some of the compelling health benefits of music is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®. Today, she’ll be walking us through five ways music can benefit our health.

Before we get started, I’d like to remind you that if you have any topic ideas you’d like to hear about, please reach out to us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!

Mihaela, welcome back to the show today.

Mihaela Vincze: Hi – good to be here.

Al Waller: I just have to say there is no denying the feeling that all of a sudden hearing that favorite song come through the air causes – it really does something for you. But can music actually or physically impact our emotions?

Mihaela Vincze: It can. When you listen to music that you enjoy – I mean, I'm sure we've all experienced this – but we really find ourselves feeling good. A review published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience looked at studies of brain imaging scans and found that listening to music increases activity in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, which are rich with dopamine receptors.

Dopamine is a “feel-good” hormone, and to reiterate this further, a study published in Nature Neuroscience found that songs that give you “the chills” were especially effective at releasing this hormone. The next time you find yourself needing to boost your mood, try listening to a few of your favorite songs.

Al Waller: I think the studies you've related are really pretty cool in terms of supporting the tangible and positive effects that our favorite music contributes to our emotions. Are there any other ways in which our favorite music might impact us?

Mihaela Vincze: Good question, as music may impact our ability to sleep—which we could be using more of— according to SleepFoundation.org, between 10% and 30% of adults struggle with chronic insomnia. A study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing showed that participants who listened to relaxing classical music for 45 minutes before sleeping, slept significantly better than students who listened to an audiobook or did nothing different from their normal routine. If you find yourself having trouble falling or staying asleep, listening to some classical music before bed may help do the trick.

Al Waller: Well, aside from that “feel good” feeling music provides when we're conscious, it's a nice side bonus that music can also help us feel better by getting us to sleep. So, if music can help regulate emotions and sleep conditions, is it possible music might also help mood disorders – like depression?

Mihaela Vincze: Amazingly yes, music can reduce symptoms of depression. A study published in a German medical journal found that music can benefit patients with depressive symptoms, depending on the type of music they are listening to. For instance, classical music and meditative sounds lifted people up, but techno and heavy metal brought them down. If you find yourself experiencing a low mood, perhaps some classical music or meditative sounds may help you feel better.

Al Waller: Well, given music trends tend to be quite broad, and I might add a matter of taste, it's important to understand that the research also considers how different types of music have different impacts. Other than helping people feel less depressed and more motivated, how else can music impact our brain?

Mihaela Vincze: Music might actually help us learn things a lot easier. Researchers discovered music strengthens memory, which can improve our ability to learn. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology had participants memorize information while listening to music that seemed either neutral or positive to them. The results showed that participants learned better with pleasurable music and tested better with neutral music. However, the opposite was true for musicians, who learned better with neutral music but tested better with pleasurable music.

Al Waller: Well, sign me up Mihaela! Just maybe I could use this information the next time I try something new or preparing for my next trivia night or maybe just locating my car keys… But all kidding aside, what else can music do to improve our health?

Mihaela Vincze: Well, as we age, music may improve our brain health. If you want to keep your brain engaged as you get older, listening to or playing music is a great tool. Music has the power to evoke positive emotions and elevate your mood, which is especially important as we age.

A study conducted by the University of Kansas Medical Center grouped 70 healthy older adults (ages 60- 83) and found that those with ten or more years of musical lessons scored higher on cognitive tests than those with fewer years. The benefits of musical lessons were still apparent, even in those who no longer played an instrument. If you want to keep your brain healthy as you age, learning how to play an instrument might help you achieve just that.

Al Waller: You know, that's pretty ironic that you mentioned this because I can think of actually 3 friends right off the bat – that fall pretty close to this age range – that recently picked up the guitar over the last six to twelve months. So, it sounds like they've already tapped into your research.

The lasting effects of music in our lives is impressive. How can someone go about infusing music into their daily life?

Mihaela Vincze: You can do this by playing music at certain times of the day and really getting into a routine of listening to music, for instance, having it on in the mornings or in the evenings. You can join a music group like a choir or a band, or if you are religious, maybe attend a religious service and sing along to the spiritual songs.

Lastly, if you have a loved one who suffers from age-related dementia, perhaps try playing some of their favorite songs from their past to help them remember who they are. Music affects so many areas of the brain, it may stimulate pathways that could still be healthy, according to Dr. Laura Mosqueda, Director of Geriatrics at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.

Al Waller: Well, Mihaela, thanks again for sharing with us today – I've really enjoyed it. And you know, I think I'm going to go spin some vinyl right after we wrap up here.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

We hope you’ll join us for future episodes, and don’t miss our recent episodes on the benefits of socialization and sustainability practices for health.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.