Singing can improve physical and mental health in the elderly

(Image courtesy of Candida Performa)

The challenges of an aging population are never far from the headlines, whether it’s concerns over pensions, or the increase in dementia cases. In this guest post, Ichiro Saito tells us about his latest research into singing and how it could benefit older people.

Prior to the development of speech as a way of communicating, humans used songs, humming, and other musical sounds. Songs have been used – and still are – in many different ways, from communicating  when hunting was good, to celebrating after a good harvest, from praying for rain, to mourning at funerals.

We’ve been looking into how understanding human song is useful today for Japan’s ’super-aged’ society. National census data shows the population of Japan is rapidly aging. By 2040, one in three individuals will be over 65 years old.

This demographic group has special physical and mental health concerns caused by aging and other stress, such as lifestyle changes due to retirement.

Retirement brings several changes to peoples’ lives. People may feel they have lost authority they once had in the workplace, and their independence as they reestablish spousal relationships. Other stress is caused by financial worries, declining physical ability, and illness. Mental health care is important to prevent the onset of stress-related depression.

A more physical problem for people as they get older, is that their ability to spit and swallow decreases, causing bacteria to accumulate in the mouth. These bacteria can enter the stomach via digestion and eventually enter the lungs. This can cause aspiration pneumonia, which is a kind of pulmonary illness that has an increased risk of complications for the elderly. Prevention through oral and cardiovascular care is therefore as important as having better treatment for the illness.

People have long believed singing is beneficial for health, but evidence of this is lacking. In our latest study, published in BioPsychoSocial Medicine, we examined the beneficial effects of singing on mental health and immune-competence, using swallowing function, oral condition, blood, and saliva tests, and through questionnaires taken before and after singing. The results of these tests suggest that singing can be effective in improving the mental and oral condition of the elderly.

The results showed that the amount of saliva increased and the level of cortisol, a salivary stress marker, decreased after singing. The subjects’ feeling and mood improved and they felt more refreshed, comfortable, light-hearted, and relaxed. What’s more, the same tendencies were shown regardless of whether or not the subjects liked singing.

In a super-aged society, we hope that this research will help more elderly people to maintain their physical and mental well-being through singing.

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