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by Janice Lloyd
Updated December 4, 2023
If you belong to a choir or glee club, you already know how invigorating singing with a group can be. Now, group singing is getting a thumbs-up from researchers.
While many studies on maintaining health as you age have focused on aerobic activities, a growing body of research is showing how playing and participating in music can help.
When she was a Fulbright scholar, Julene Johnson studied how community choirs influenced the quality of life of 117 older adults living in Finland, where community music is a big part of life. Singing in a choir was an important factor in keeping older Finns healthy and improving well-being, she found. A more recent study by Johnson, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues in Finland involved 162 healthy adults 60 and older and found a specific cognitive benefit for longtime choir members. They were stronger in a type of executive function called verbal flexibility and had better social integration than non-choir members, the team reported in 2021 in PLOS One. Other studies have found that singing releases hormones into the brain that lower stress and provide feelings of pleasure.
Johnson also completed a randomized clinical trial of 390 adults 60 and older — this time at 12 senior centers in San Francisco. Participants took part in six months of weekly, 90-minute singing sessions, learning new music and following a conductor. Choir members, and a “control group” that was put on a six-month waiting list to participate in the choirs, were tested for lower-body strength, memory and other cognitive skills before and after the study.
The social benefits of group singing shone through. Choir participants had lower levels of loneliness, which is a risk factor for dementia, according to her team’s 2018 report in The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. In follow-up focus groups, choir members said they felt a higher interest in life and feelings of belonging.
The study didn’t find cognitive differences between the two groups. Six months may have been too short a time to show cognitive changes, Johnson said, adding, or “it’s possible that choirs are really good for psychosocial and emotional aspects,” she said. “To improve cognition or slow cognitive decline, you might have to do something a little bit more rigorous like musical training, learning a musical instrument.”
She’s hoping more studies will help health professionals tailor their recommendations to the person’s needs. In the meantime, Johnson, a lifelong musician, says Americans often stop participating in music as they enter midlife with all of its responsibilities of family and work. “I think it’s a missed opportunity,” she says. “We should put more value on community music opportunities and make them more accessible.”