October 4, 2011

The Healing Powers of Music Confirmed in Recent Studies

Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons. You will find it is to the soul what a water bath is to the body.   --Oliver Wendell Holmes

Without music, life would be a mistake.  --Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Few of us would disagree with these sentiments. But now recent studies show that music also has major positive effects on many aspects of health -- ranging from memory and mood to cardiovascular function and athletic performance. These studies were reviewed in the July issue of Harvard Men's Health Watch. Here are some of the studies and findings:

Music and the Mind
Researchers at the University of California-Irvine administered standard IQ tests to three groups of college students, comparing those who spent ten minutes listening to a Mozart piano sonata with a group that had been listening to a relaxation tape and one that had been waiting in silence. Mozart was the winner, consistently boosting test scores. But before you rush out and stock up on Mozart piano sonata CD's, the "Mozart effect" was slight (8-9 IQ points) and fleeting (15 minutes).

Music and Stress
Several studies show that music can reduce stress in people dealing with illness or surgery. In one study of 74 elderly patients awaiting cataract surgery, half got to listen to music of their choice in headphones before, during and after surgery. Both groups had elevated blood pressure just before the surgery. But the patients surrounded by silence remained hypertensive throughout, while those who listened to music had impressive drops in the bp readings, and reported they felt calmer and better during the operation.

A study of 80 patients undergoing urologic surgery under spinal anesthesia found that music decreased the need for supplementary intravenous sedation. And a study of ten critically ill post-operative patients found that music could reduce the stress response even when patients are not conscious.

Music and Mood
An authoritative review of research performed between 1994 and 1999 reported that in four trials music therapy reduced symptoms of depression while a fifth study found no benefit.

A 2006 study of 60 adults with chronic pain found that music was able to reduce pain, depression, and disability.

A 2009 meta-analysis found that music-assisted relaxation can improve the quality of sleep in patients with sleep disorders.

My Own Experience with Music and Mood
I've mentioned before my "Summer from Hell," when I was suddenly hit by a perfect storm of anxiety attacks, insomnia, and depression. I figured this was caused by my abusing Ambien and Tylenol PM during and after a visit to my "home away from home" in Nepal. But when I turned to the medical profession for help, everybody prescribed more and different pills as the answer to what was basically a pill-induced problem. Finally my sensible pill shrink said "Time to stop with the pills. Why don't you try more holistic approaches?"

Out of desperation, one of the things I tried was "brain wave music therapy" that I'd seen a Today Show piece with Matt Lauer. I got an appointment with the Russian-trained doctor in NYC. She recorded my brain waves and from this created two customized CDs: one to induce relaxation and sleep, the other to stimulate alertness. At the same time, I had come across a meditation technique that proved to be very effective for me and that I still use. The brain wave CD may have helped get me over the hump in my recovery, but I stopped using it after a few months and didn't notice any difference.

I just checked: the brain wave therapy clinic is still in business. See http://brainmusictreatment.com/

Last Saturday I tried a different therapy for my September doldrums. My son and his girlfriend asked me to join them at concert by Bettye LaVette, about whom I knew nothing. She sent my mood soaring! More about her stunning, mood-elevating performance in a later post.

Music and Movement
As someone with Parkinson's disease who worries about falling, I'm particularly interested in studies on music and balance. A 2011 study indicates that music can help. This study's subjects were 133 men and women 65 and older who were at risk of falling, but free of major neurologic and orthopedic problems that would limit walking. Half the volunteers were randomly assigned to a program that trained them to walk and perform various movements in time to music. The others continued with their regular activities. At the end of six months, the "dancers" exhibited better gait and balance than their peers, and experienced 54% fewer falls.

The Harvard newsletter notes that "similar programs of movement to music appear to improve mobility of patients with Parkinson's disease." I need to Google this for more details!

Music and Stroke Recovery
A 2008 study suggests that  music can help here, too. Sixty patients were enrolled in the program shortly after they were hospitalized for major strokes. All received standard stroke care. In addition, a third of the patients were randomly assigned to listen to recorded music for at least one hour a day. Another third listened to audiobooks, and the final third received no auditory stimulation.

After three months, verbal memory improved 60% in the music listeners, compared to 18%  in the audiobook group, and 29% in the group that was left alone. In addition, the music listeners' ability to perform and control mental operations improved by 17%, while the other two groups did not improve at all.

Music and the Heart and Circulation
Several studies suggest that music may help the heart and circulation, most likely by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and reducing levels of stress hormones.

One study looked at arterial function and blood flow in ten healthy volunteers before and after they listened to various types of music, watched humorous videos, or listened to relaxation tapes. Joyful music produced a 26% increase in blood flow, a result akin to the gains from aerobic exercise or statin therapy, well ahead of laughter (19% increase) and relaxation (11%).

Alert for parents of teen-age children:  Music can work both ways. Selections that triggered anxiety in listeners produced a 6% decrease in blood flow.

What About Old-fashioned Concert Going?
Most of these studies involved the use of headphones, so familiar to today's ipod generation.

A study in Sweden of the habits of 12,982 people had the expected results -- smoking and previous illness predicted earlier death, while exercise, higher education, and financial security predicted prolonged life.

But there was one unexpected finding -- attendance at cultural events had a surprisingly positive impact on mortality. People who rarely or never attended concerts or plays were 1.57 times more likely to die than people who attended frequently.

Guess I'll hang on to my season ticket subscriptions to the Kennedy Center ballet series and to Studio and Shakespeare Theaters.
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and everything else.  --Plato

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