Singing 'The Sound Of Music' Could Improve Mental Health In Alzheimer's Patients In Just 4 Months

old people singing
A new study shows that Alzheimer's patients can experience a boost in brain function after singing show tunes, such as those from "The Sound of Music." Image courtesy of Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com

A new study has found that patients with dementia, including those with Alzheimer’s disease, who spend time singing — songs from the musicals The Sound Of Music and Oklahoma, for example — experience a boost in their cognitive function.

People who had moderate to severe dementia experienced the most striking results, according to Jane Flinn, who is an author of the study, and a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Virginia. “Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful,” she told The Guardian. “The message is: don’t give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy, and engaging.”

The study, which was presented recently at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, took place in a U.S. elderly care home over the course of four months. Elderly patients participated in regular singing sessions, belting out songs from The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, and The Sound of Music. The researchers found that the cognitive function of the singers improved more so than the patients who simply listened. In an extension of the study on the East Coast, led by Linda Maguire, a group of patients with severe Alzheimer’s were assigned to a singing group that took place three times a week for 50 minutes, over the course of four months. The songs that patients sang were familiar classics, such as “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Flinn believes that singing can activate memories from dementia patients’ pasts, noting that people with Alzheimer’s often show a striking ability in remembering lyrics and melodies. “A lot of people have grown up singing songs and for a long time the memories are still there,” she told The Guardian. “When they start singing it can revive those memories.” A September study reached a similar conclusion. It found that regular musical leisure activities could provide long-term cognitive and emotional benefits for those with mild dementia, and that singing improved the moods of the patients reviewed as well.

Mental Health Benefits Of Singing

We already know that singing can have some physical benefits, such as increasing lung capacity and reducing stress. And choirs and singing groups aren’t only helpful for people with dementia — singing is good for anyone who wants to give their mental health a boost. In 2010, Professor Stephen Clift, director of research at the Sidney De Haan Centre for Arts and Health in England, led a study that found that singing can help people with mental health problems.

Earlier this year, a Swedish study pointed out that while choir members sing in unison, their heartbeats also line up during song, creating a sense of unity in both mind and physicality. “We already know that choral singing synchronises the singers’ muscular movements and neural activities in large parts of the body,” lead author of the study Dr. Björn Vickhoff, of Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, said. “Now we also know that this applies to the heart, to a large extent.” He continued, noting that singing provides an experience similar to yoga: “It helps you relax, and there are indications that it does provide a heart benefit.”

A spokesperson from the U.K. Alzheimer’s Society told The Guardian that overall, singing groups have benefits for dementia patients. “Even when many memories are hard to retrieve, music can sometimes still be recalled. The sessions help people with dementia communicate, improving their mood and leaving them feeling good about themselves.”

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