Although music has been acknowledged as a form of therapy, the mechanisms for which music benefits the aging process is unclear. Scientists know that parts of the brain related to musical perception and processing interact with other regions of the brain responsible for controlling learning, memory, and emotions — areas of the brain that generally become less active with age. Given the diversity and complexity of both music and how music is experienced, however, researchers have many avenues to explore in order to further understand this relationship.
The benefits of music can differ depending on music familiarity. Through her own experiences playing piano at an assisted living center, one scientist noted that although dementia patients did not respond when she played classical numbers like Beethoven, residents became livelier and sang along when she played familiar traditional folk songs. She argues that when older adults hear music that is familiar and enjoyable, their brain releases dopamine which piques curiosity and motivates them to learn new things.
The benefits of music may also differ depending on tempo. One study examining the effects of music on ventilated ICU patients found that music with a tempo between 60-80 beats per minute can decrease anxiety and exposure to sedative medications. Consequently, these patients were able to breathe independently 1.4 days sooner than those who were not exposed to music while ventilated.
Other research indicates that music can be beneficial regardless of tempo, as long as it is relaxing. Scientists have found that playing 60-minute doses of slow and relaxing combinations of piano, rainfall sounds, and classical music help to reduce delirium in ICU patients, as compared to those who listened to audio books instead.
Given the complexity of music and how it is experienced, another team of researchers is trying to tackle the overarching barrier undermining research on music and aging-personal preferences. The ultimate goal is to help provide caregivers with guidance in how music can benefit individual patients.
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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Could “Musical medicine” influence healthy aging? National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/could-musical-medicine-influence-healthy-aging.