Music as a Tool for Successful Aging

Music is an important part of life for most people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, where they live in the world, age, gender, or ethnicity, and it is now being shown to be an important part of successful aging. Americans often take great care in choosing music for special occasions like weddings, birthday parties, graduations, and even funerals. Professional athletes choose a theme song they believe represents them to be played when they enter the field or arena to the cheers of their fans, parents sing special songs to their children (often before they’re even born), and there are countless YouTube videos of people of all ages singing and dancing. Most of us can hear a particular song and immediately think back to a time in our life that’s marked by that song. We create playlists for workouts, study sessions, road trips, and dinner parties. Music and emotion tend to go hand-in-hand: It can make us laugh, and it can make us cry. Almost every culture across the world includes music as an integral part of their rituals and celebrations. And if money is any indication of value, the multibillion-dollar music industry reveals that music is very important to our culture. So it’s no wonder that many studies are now being conducted to investigate the impact of music on successful aging.

So how can music help your senior patients who are working toward aging gracefully? Music can help soothe your patients and reduce anxiety. For example, the dental field has found music to be helpful in easing patients’ nerves. People have long been known to feel anxious about undergoing dental procedures, so a number of dental offices began using music to help patients relax during their procedures. Studies on the practice demonstrate significantly lower anxiety in patients who listen to music during dental treatments, particularly in those patients who expressed high levels of anxiety prior to the procedure. But dental treatments are far from the only health-related procedures that induce anxiety, so the benefit surely has value beyond the world of dentistry. Another study presented by researchers from the University of Belgrade at Serbia to the European Society of Cardiology 2009 Congress indicates that as little as 12 minutes a day spent listening to music can reduce blood pressure and overall anxiety. Both of these can play a large role in medical procedure outcomes and post-procedure treatment and healing. Whether you want to bring music into your own professional practice or want to offer advice to seniors and their family caregivers that can improve their quality of life, it’s worth getting to know some of the data about music and health and how it might impact the efforts of your patients to age gracefully.

The Practice of Music Therapy

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy has existed informally for years but didn’t become a formal discipline in healthcare until the 1940s, when the first degree in music therapy was offered at Michigan State University. Music therapy is an evidence-based practice that involves using music interventions to help people reach their health and clinical goals. An individual can hire a private music therapist to work with him on specific goals, but most music therapy services are provided as part of a holistic care model in a hospital, clinic, school, or hospice organization.

If formal music therapy is impractical for someone hoping to incorporate music into her plan of aging successfully, there are online music programs designed to bring the benefits of music therapy to anyone with an Internet connection on her phone, tablet, or computer. There are programs designed by music therapists to help individuals reach specific outcomes by listening to music within a genre of their own choice. A person who enjoys country music may not find classical music relaxing, for example, but a trained music therapist can put together a compilation of country music that has the proper cadence, beat, and rhythm to make it relaxing. There are also special programs designed to ease nausea for oncology patients, reduce anxiety in dementia patients, and calm a baby and expectant mother during childbirth.

Musicians Aging Gracefully

Studies have long shown that playing a musical instrument improves brain function, and now this data is being studied as it relates directly to the process of aging. Findings from 2011 show that older adults who have been lifelong musicians are better able to hear or discern speech when in a busy, loud room and also have better memory. Since hearing is one of the biggest complaints of the aging population and has a significant impact on the ability to socialize, this is a significant benefit to those who have been practiced musicians. But what about the rest of the population? This is great for the seniors in your care who are and have always been musicians, but if your clients aren’t interested or don’t have the means to take up playing a musical instrument in their twilight years, is there another option for them? As it turns out, there just might be. A British choir group consisting of sufferers Parkinson’s disease and other conditions has shown that the benefits of being a musician can be replicated in the practice of singing in a group. Joining a choir or taking singing lessons at any point in life may also offer many of the benefits enjoyed by longtime musicians. The National Institutes of Health have funded a study of seniors participating in a choir in San Francisco with the hope of validating anecdotal evidence that seniors involved in choirs have increased quality of life and improved social and psychological outcomes. Encouraging your patients to join a choir at their local church or senior center can benefit them in their overall health goals of successful aging and give them an additional social benefit as well.

Music to Improve Healing

Many people think of music as a means to help people relax, and it can indeed be used to do that, but what is being learned now is that the kind of music being listened to truly does make a difference. A fascinating study by neuroscientists at the Cleveland Clinic demonstrated that during surgery, patients listening to melodic music reported that they were more relaxed, which was supported by the medical data as well. The study is offering hope that music can not only reduce anxiety and blood pressure during and after a procedure, but it can also reduce the need for medications both during and after a procedure and speed the recovery time.

Music and Neurological Issues

Social worker Dan Cohen has been working with people with dementia for decades, and he combined his passion for these patients with his love of music to create a true labor of love: Music & Memory, a nonprofit organization that brings music to older adults through technology. Included in this initiative is the documentary Alive Inside. The film made the independent film festival circuit in 2014 after initially releasing clips on YouTube that garnered a lot of attention. The film follows the stories of several patients lost inside their own world of dementia. The patients were given iPods filled with music personalized to their own tastes, and when they listened to the music, they became much more responsive — suddenly smiling, swaying, and even singing. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the film is not only that the patients enjoy the moments when they’re listening to the music, but that they’re more engaged, vocal, and cognizant after listening to it, too.

Music and End of Life

Music has long been used to celebrate life, but new studies are now starting to show that it may also help ease the journey toward the end of a patient’s life. There are music therapists who have chosen to focus their entire work on the end-of-life process, and music therapy offerings are available at many hospice and palliative care organizations. Although more data is needed, one particular study found that the practice of music therapy combined with guided imagery, deep breathing, and muscle relaxation showed a significant reduction in anxiety in late-stage cancer patients.

Whatever type of healthcare provider you are, bringing music into your own practice is one way that you can help improve the lives and health of your clients and help them accomplish their goals of successful aging. Whether you provide music to reduce anxiety in the waiting room or provide headphones and the ability to select personalized playlists to listen to during a treatment, music can be used to help your patients in many ways. You can also take this a step further by encouraging clients and patients to get the most out of these benefits by continuing their music therapy at home, too. As you offer music during a procedure, it can be helpful to explain the reasons you have chosen this additional offering in your practice and the benefits that you anticipate, based on scientific data. You could then share how the client can use music on her own to reduce pain during her recovery or at-home treatment. Music can have a remarkable effect on people and could contribute to your patients’ healthy aging.

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