Many people sing in the shower. Others sing in choirs or at their place of worship, and some do a mean “Billie Jean” in karaoke. Beyond the pleasure of making music, does warbling at the top of our lungs provide any health benefits?
The answer is yes, especially for seniors. Studies have shown that singing can improve the brain functionality of seniors suffering from conditions such as aphasia and Parkinson’s disease. In addition, many seniors live alone, are limited in mobility due to chronic conditions such as arthritis, and are on budgets; finding easy and affordable activities that keep them engaged and connected is beneficial for their emotional well-being.
I consulted with Billie Bandermann, the choir director of HaShirim, a South Peninsula Jewish community choir, to learn more about the health and social benefits of singing.
Bandermann has been teaching voice for more than four decades, including instructing octogenarian singers. She notes that the more one sings, the clearer the tone — plus improvements in voice range and breath support — even in her 80-year-old students. Medical studies tend to support her observations. In patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), those who sing in a weekly musical class show improvement in respiratory function and reduced sensation of breathlessness.
Bandermann encourages members of the choir to memorize their parts. “Memorization promotes a higher level of understanding of the music,” she says. “It helps singers keep their eyes on the conductor and helps in phrasing and appreciation of how one passage leads to another.” It is unknown whether singing can prevent dementia, but many neuroscience experts think it may at least delay age-related changes in cognition.
Bandermann relates a remarkable story regarding her mother, who had a stroke at the age of 51. This resulted in her inability to speak. Strangely, she retained her ability to sing — including the lyrics of songs. The inference is that the portion of the brain involved with singing is a distinct entity from the speech center, and may strengthen our neurological reserve when it comes to memory.
In one study, protective levels of immunoglobulin antibodies (IgA) were measured in choir singers and compared with levels of listeners to the choir. The singers had significantly higher amounts of IgA. In another study finding involving seniors, the level of the stress hormone cortisol was reduced in their saliva after singing.
Bandermann was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 35. Prior to this she had been able to play violin, flute and guitar, but after her diagnosis, singing remained her only form of musical expression. Remarkably, her arthritis is quiescent whenever she conducts a choir. She never feels any pain when conducting, even when she once fell and broke her elbow minutes before a performance!
Studies also show that belonging to a choir provides community and social benefits, and it helps alleviate loneliness, a common ailment among seniors. One incident stands out in Bandermann’s recollection: Eight years ago she suffered a two-month bout of vertigo. She miraculously recovered when she stepped in front of the choir to begin a HaShirim rehearsal. “Singing reminded me that I didn’t want to be sick,” she says.
Bandermann adds that it doesn’t matter how well you sing, you can still enjoy the benefits. “Music [singing] has been a miracle in my life,” she says. “It allows me to connect with others in a way that’s not possible by words.”
Jerry Saliman, M.D., is a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo and a contributing medical blogger for the Peninsula Jewish Community Center (www.pjcc.org) in Foster City. He retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after a 30-year career.