Medical studies reveal health benefits of tunes
By Autumn Gray
Humans’ engagement with music dates back at least 40,000 years. Archaeological finds of pre-historic flutes made of bones and mammoth ivory tell us as much. However, early humans could have participated in rhythmic activities like hand clapping, dancing, and even singing well before then. Indeed, scientists have discovered that as far back as a million years ago, our ancestors had the anatomical ability to “sing” like us, but of course there’s no way to confirm that they did.
“What is certain is that music has long provided people with an emotional outlet and has served as a way to bring people together,” said Nishiena Gandhi, a neurologist with Optum New Mexico.
Look no further than an angst-ridden teen blasting tunes behind a closed bedroom door or the hundreds of undulating bodies on a club dance floor or the sense of community amid a crowd attending a concert, whether it’s rock, country, or classical.
Yet, is there more to music than meets the ear? Could music serve as a type of medicine not just for the soul but also for the body and mind?
While the use of sound frequencies, rhythm and song to help treat both physical and mental ailments is relatively new, studies have shown promise, Dr. Gandhi said.
According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, studies suggest that music may help reduce blood pressure; help improve coordination, mobility, and endurance; benefit the nervous system; and improve immune function. Several clinical trials show music therapy helped reduce pain or pain perception, and possibly pain medication use. Patients in palliative care who took part in live music therapy sessions reported relief from persistent pain. Further, cancer guidelines recommend music therapy for stress reduction, depression, anxiety and mood disorders.
Listening to and playing music has also been shown to increase 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, according to the American Psychological Association.
The vast array of music’s potential health benefits led Optum New Mexico to partner with New Mexico Philharmonic (NMPhil) this year to raise awareness of its impact, especially on the state’s older residents. Indeed, music is being used more and more in support of individuals with Parkinson’s disease and to enrich the lives of dementia patients, Optum NM’s Dr. Gandhi said.
According to the American Parkinson’s Disease Association, music-based therapies may work in a variety of ways to improve Parkinson’s related challenges, and music therapy has proven popular for people with PD as a way of improving symptoms.
Studies have shown that music may also help reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues that are common in the middle-stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s experts believe this occurs in part because music encourages self-expression and engagement, even after dementia has progressed. For instance, a person may be able to tap a beat or sing a song they associate with earlier times in their lives. In this way, music provides a way to connect, even after verbal communication has become difficult, Dr. Gandhi said.
The music-health connection has been deemed so promising that the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke – in partnership with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (KC), and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – launched the Sound Health Initiative in 2016, to promote research on the health effects and potential therapeutic applications of music.
To that end, NIH invited applications for fundamental research focused on unraveling the mechanisms used by our brains and bodies to respond to and interact with music, as well as studies using music-based interventions to help treat disease. The organizations have also hosted a series of public events exploring the connections between music, health and wellness, and science, including a concert featuring NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming, and Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent.
The health benefits of music are likely rooted in biology, Dr. Gandhi said. Regardless of the type of music a person enjoys, the brain responds to music through the activity of the temporal lobes. At the top of each temporal lobe is an area responsible for receiving information from the ears. The underside of each temporal lobe plays a crucial role in forming and retrieving memories, including those associated with music. Other parts of this lobe seem to integrate memories and sensations of taste, sound, sight, and touch.
Though clinical research about music as medicine is evolving, there is abundant anecdotal evidence of music’s positive impact on people’s moods, said Nancy Pressley-Naimark, director of community relations and development officer for New Mexico Philharmonic.
“Just attending a concert or listening to a song can make you feel good, whether science can explain it or not,” she said.
While it’s purely coincidence that the fall/winter flu and virus season coincides with the start of NM Philharmonic’s symphony season, music’s immunization-boosting powers is just one more reason to attend upcoming concerts, Pressley-Naimark said. “This is especially true for our older residents who are not only more vulnerable to viruses but who also make up the bulk of symphony attendees,” she said.
According to a recent survey of all NM Philharmonic’s classic music subscribers and single ticketholders, 70 percent of the organization’s audience is older than 70.
“Just to be clear, music should not replace medicine; it may be considered a good supplement to following best medical practices,” Dr. Gandhi emphasized. “Everyone, especially people in the older age brackets, should be getting immunized against the flu and Covid-19, and consult their primary care physician now about other shots they may need this fall and winter.”
The NM Philharmonic lineup for the fall includes a Mozart festival composed of four evening concerts this month, October 7, 8, 21 and 22. These performances include a partially staged opera, Mozart & Salieri by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in combination with Mozart’s Requiem through Lacrimosa. This was the final movement composed by Mozart before his death. Another concert will feature aria selections from The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figuero.
The symphony will also present two winners and one finalist from the Olga Kern International Piano Competition performing in November and in April, a popular Friday morning Coffee Concert is scheduled for December 15. “A lot of retired people come to those,” Pressley-Naimark said.
To encourage younger residents to become interested in classical music, NMPhil offers hour-long educational Power Concerts on various Sundays for families and young children. “The conductor explains the music and the story behind the music, tells the kids about the composer, and will pick certain instruments and tell them to listen for that in piece that’s played,” Pressley-Naimark said.
“It’s a great way for grandparents and parents to instill the love of music in their children and potentially to help keep families healthy, too,” she said.
For a full calendar of events and details about performance times and venues, visit https://nmphil.org/.