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It's Showtime: Singing, Dancing, and Their Role in Boosting Brain Health and Mood: Listening to music can have many benefits, but singing, dancing and even songwriting can often work wonders.

In one of his most enduring poems, Percy Shelley wrote, "Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory..."

Though the poem seems to be a recognition of the power of human memory, and in particular memories associated with the senses, this 19th century observation captures a fascinating feature of memory that researchers continue to explore today: Melodies are among the strongest and longest lasting memories the brain preserves.

"In people with Alzheimer's disease, the last of the memories to be kept is music memory," notes Ronald Hirschberg, MD, who specializes in trauma rehabilitation and who has done considerable research into neurologic music therapy. "The brain lights up when people are listening to music from the 1930s and 1940s."

In addition to forming memories that can play through the curtain of dementia and rekindle happy memories and moods of youth, music can have a significant role in helping people overcome the limitations of Parkinson's disease (PD), stroke and psychological disorders, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it's not just hearing familiar or soothing tunes that helps. Research shows that singing, dancing and songwriting can provide benefits in seemingly countless ways.

Get Up and Dance

Dr. Hirschberg explains that music therapy has both active and passive components. And it's the active process of dancing, for example, that can sometimes benefit motor skills, gait, memory, and cognition, he says. Many Parkinsons programs around the country include dance classes as part of their treatment. Hearing a rhythm can get muscles moving that might otherwise not cooperate in people with this neurodegenerative disorder. Stroke patients may also enhance their recovery when music and dance are part of their rehabilitation.

"Music and movement go together," Dr. Hirschberg says. "That external stimulus triggers a kind of internal metronome. We think music and movement are synergistic. People who hear music can have more fluidity with their movements than they might otherwise have. It may also increase dopamine (a brain chemical responsible for muscle movement among other functions), just like exercise."

Earlier this year, the power of music and dance was shown to improve the quality of life for people with dementia. A small study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease & Other Dementias found that weekly group sessions that incorporated familiar music with natural gestures and dance exercises led to significant improvements in the quality of life of the participants, all of whom had dementia.

And as with other forms of exercise, listening and/or moving to music can help to improve your heart rate and respiratory rate, explains psychologist Louisa Sylvia, PhD, associate director of the Dauten Family Center for Bipolar Treatment Innovation and director of health and wellness at the Red Sox Foundation and MGH's Home Base Program, which provides mental health care and other services for veterans. Specifically, listening or moving to music can help to elicit mindfulness, or non-judgmentally focusing on the present moment as opposed to negative or anxious thoughts and feelings. Thus, music can help people to relax, think more positively and perhaps find a new perspective on life or past events.

"With dance, people focus on their breathing and body movements. It gets people out of their heads," Dr. Sylvia says, noting the stress relief that can accompany activities that steer people away from dwelling on their problems.

Sing Out Loud

In addition to dancing, singing can provide some of the same benefits for people with memory or mood challenges. The World Health Organization released a report in November 2019 promoting the importance of the arts for physical and mental health, noting in particular that singing can improve attention, episodic memory and executive function.

Singing can improve your mood in several ways. Belting out a tune triggers the release of feel-good endorphins and the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with positive feelings and the alleviation of stress and anxiety. Singing new songs also challenges the brain to learn new lyrics and melodies, and research has shown learning any new skill can stimulate neurons and form new neural pathways in the brain.

Your cognition and memory also benefit from the circulation and oxygen boost that comes from singing and giving your lungs and diaphragm a good workout. And for people with Parkinson's disease, a study presented at the 2018 Society for Neuroscience conference suggests that singing may improve respiratory and swallow control--two functions that can suffer as a result of PD. The study also found that individuals who were part of a PD singing program exhibited fewer signs of stress.

To help motivate people who are hesitant to step up to the microphone or slip into some dance shoes, Dr. Sylvia encourages them to focus on the fun of learning a song or dance and the positive energy that comes from performing with others who are also there just to enjoy music. "It's not about the outcome," Dr. Sylvia says. "It's about the process. I tell people not to worry about the final product."

Music for Coping

Listening and performing are but two ways music can help deal with dementia or a mental health condition. In a recent study led by Dr. Hirschberg and Dr. Sylvia, military veterans with PTSD collaborated with a professional songwriter from an organization called Songwriting with Soldiers to compose a song about their experiences, their feelings and the things that trigger anxiety and fear.

The study found that by exploring their feelings and ordeals to write a song--which was later recorded and given to the veterans to listen to as part of the research--the participants experienced some reduced PTSD symptoms. By listening to their own re-telling of their wartime experiences, the veterans engaged in a form of exposure therapy, which is a treatment used to help people with PTSD or other forms of anxiety that involves exposing a person to the source of their fears in a very controlled, safe way.

"The songs were a way of facing a challenge in a somewhat comfortable way," Dr. Sylvia says. "By talking about their military experiences, the veterans were able to find positive perspectives on those experiences. There was a common theme of 'I've recovered' and 'I've come out of it.' It's very powerful."
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Date:Jan 30, 2020
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