We do it in while gardening. We do it in the car. We do it under our breath. We even do it in the shower.
People love to sing a good song. Whether or not you can carry a tune, singing is a natural and enjoyable part of life.
We often hear that listening to music helps those with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, but singing is often overlooked. If you’re a senior, or caring for one, you may be surprised to learn that singing holds multiple benefits for the ageing brain.
What is dementia?
Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — to an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
Worldwide, around 55 million people have dementia. As the proportion of older people is increasing in nearly every country, this number is expected to rise significantly.
Given the increasing global prevalence of dementia, it is important to find ways to help people and their family caregivers maintain and stimulate cognitive, emotional, and social well-being. To that end, easily applied musical leisure activities – like singing – are a fun and effective way to increase quality of life.
How singing helps someone with dementia
Researchers at the University of Helsinki, Finland have revealed that caregiver-implemented musical activities, particularly singing, helped older adults with mild to moderate dementia. It was found to be beneficial for memory, thinking skills and the ability to find their way around. This was especially true for those younger than 80 with mild dementia.
Simply listening to music was associated with cognitive benefits only in seniors with a more advanced level of dementia. Both singing and music listening alleviated depression especially in those with mild, Alzheimer-type dementia.
Singing and the Brain
The benefits of singing on mood and mental facility are so powerful that Alzheimer’s societies around the world encourage participation in choirs and other group singing sessions.
- Social inclusion and support
- Improved articulation
- Positive impact on relationships
- Positive impact on memory, focus, and motivation
- Improved mood
- Acceptance of the diagnosis
Whether you’re a shower singer, professional diva, or take part in a choir, all types of singing benefit your brain. Here are just a few ways that it helps people experiencing cognitive decline… and their caregivers.
Singing Enhances Memory
“The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in music. And people can regain a sense of identity.” — Oliver Sacks
Our brains possess a remarkable ability to make, store, and retrieve memories of music, even when we are not aware of doing so.
In order to form and retrieve long-term memories, multiple regions of the brain work together to form a coordinated network that transmits information from one region to another. When it comes to music, this network seems to remain intact, especially when the music contains lyrics.
Studies show that people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can recall song lyrics more easily than other words. Interestingly, singers remember more than just the lyrics. For some, singing familiar songs suddenly bring back life memories they’d forgotten.
Researchers have also found that singing songs learned at a younger age caused a spontaneous return of autobiographical details for many people. Perhaps because key brain areas linked to musical memory remain relatively undamaged by the disease.
Developing A Sense of Belonging and Social Connection
Singing with a group can reduce loneliness by bringing together like-minded people. Group singing motivates people to participate and improves engagement for those who are more withdrawn. Even those with severe cognitive impairment will show a change in body tone and appear attentive during a sing-a-long.
Singing As Exercise
Singing is aerobic. It can be a form of exercise that improves the body’s cardiovascular system, with the related benefits to overall health. Carrying a tune increases the oxygenation of the blood, which also improves overall alertness. As an added bonus, major muscle groups are exercised in the upper body.
Stress Relief, Relaxation, and Improved Well-Being
Daniel Levitin, psychology professor at McGill University and author of This is Your Brain on Music, says group singing isn’t just good for the soul — it’s good for the body.
By analyzing the changes in people’s brain activity when they sing together, he concluded that feelings of belonging and mood elevation are biologically ingrained.
According to a 2017 study, singing releases stored muscle tension and decreases the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol in the blood stream, leaving people feeling more relaxed after they’d belted out a tune. Even those who feel happy and free of significant anxiety may notice their mood improving when they start to sing.
Singing Is a Way to Communicate
With Alzheimer’s disease, language deteriorates, and people begin to speak less as the disease progresses. Their speech becomes confused. However, the ability to sing old tunes sometimes remains intact throughout the disease.
In a small study from Israel, group music therapy sessions using tailored songs helped people with middle- to late-stage Alzheimer’s strike up communication. People who may not otherwise be able to communicate started to spontaneously sing along, vocalize, and make eye contact.
Joy, Laughter, And Singing for Graceful Ageing
For those experiencing cognitive decline, living in an inclusive environment is important to their quality of life. By maximizing care, support, health, and well-being, a sense of normalcy is created, and the person feels valued as an individual.
Rather than segregate those with cognitive decline, programs like ASC’s BLOSSOM contributes to an inclusive retirement community where people experience feelings of togetherness.
Our independent and assisted living communities make music and singing a focal point, with a special emphasis on well-known tunes that forge connections to pivotal events and evoke long-ago memories.
You can contact us anytime for more information about BLOSSOM and how you or your loved ones can enroll in the program. To see our many amazing BLOSSOM activities on social media, search #blossomliving.
Writer – Julianna McLeod
Julianna is a health and wellness expert at All Seniors Care. Her mission is to create content that empowers seniors to form sustainable solutions for lasting health and happiness. She is an experienced writer, editor, and Recreational Therapist living in Toronto.