Music is health food for the aging brain

Terri Quirk, of the Village of Chatham, plays the clarinet Tuesday, at her home in The Villages. Quirk performs with The Villages Concert Band, The Villages Symphonic Winds and The Village Voices.

Ear candy has substance when it comes to feeding the mind. The Global Council on Brain Health recently released a report outlining growing evidence that music boosts brain health, with guidelines for the role music can play in healthy aging and enhancing cognitive function. No matter how it happens — listening, dancing, playing or singing along to it — the council recommends incorporating music into routine to improve well-being and quality of life. “I think it keeps you young,” said Terri Quirk, a Village of Chatham resident who has played the clarinet for 60 years. As a member of the Villages Concert Band, she learns 12 pieces of music for each of the band’s three concerts per year, which has continued with virtual rehearsal sessions during the pandemic.

“Here are senior citizens learning 36 pieces of music a year, which is a challenge,” Quirk said. “It keeps your brain active.”

The power of music lies in the unique ways it affects the brain.

Music impacts different regions of the organ, such as those involved in movement, attention, language, thinking skills, emotion and memory, the report states.

Kiminobu Sugaya, professor of medicine and head of neuroscience at the University of Central Florida, has seen these effects in his research.

With his wife, Ayako Yonetani, a world renowned violinist, he teaches a class explaining how music impacts the brain.

For instance, if the brain relates a piece of music to an emotion, humans can better memorize it, he said.

“Then we never forget,” Sugaya said.

Just as the sound of “Hotel California” instantly takes him back to the memory of going for a drive as a young adult, songs from their youth can spark a response from patients with Alzheimer’s, even those in the late stages of the disease.

“Things happen when we give them their favorite music,” Sugaya said. “They wake up and start talking.”

The music triggers the increased release of the brain chemical dopamine, which causes the feeling of pleasure, he said, and patients can recall those memories preserved through their musical link.

Dama Meléndez uses this as a tool to connect with a family member.

Meléndez, senior program manager for the Alzheimer’s Association, Central and North Florida Chapter, said her grandmother is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease but becomes more alert whenever they play folk music from Puerto Rico, where she grew up.

“She loves it and she participates,” Meléndez said. “She still sings, even if she may not sing the correct words.”

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends music as a way to continue reaching people who have dementia and improve their quality of life. Meléndez’s chapter, which includes The Villages, recently hosted a virtual program about music and memory. She noticed many participants singing along.

“It’s rewarding and it reminds me of the capacity of the brain to connect with people,” she said. “You just have to find the right way.”

Music also can cause temporary improvement in other mental disorders.

Parkinson’s disease damages the system that releases dopamine. So music, which increases dopamine’s release, has been shown to benefit those affected.

“When we move or think, we are using rhythm in the brain to do so. Parkinson’s patients lose the rhythm. That’s why they have difficulty moving,” Sugaya said. “If we increase the dopamine, then the Parkinson’s patient can behave quite normally.”

Upbeat music is a key part of the exercise class Robert Parmenter leads for residents with Parkinson’s. The group is not meeting during the pandemic. Members also turn to vocal exercises to help preserve their voices. Losing speech is a risk as the disease progresses.

“(Music) makes a big difference,” said Parmenter, of the Village of Calumet Grove.

Though simply listening to music has its benefits, Yonetani recommends going further if trying to better the health of an aging brain. Playing an instrument, like Quirk does, is especially beneficial.

Quirk played professionally for 25 years, but she encourages anyone interested in playing an instrument to pursue it.

The New Horizons Band, for instance, is made up of residents who haven’t played in decades.

“When they worked, they didn’t have the time,” Quirk said. “Now that they’re retired, this gives them the chance to be really happy and play their instrument again.”​

There’s an easier way to bring music into the daily life of someone who is not able to play an instrument, Yonetani said.

“If somebody wants to improve their brain activity, I would suggest singing,” she said.

Ideally, singing with a group like a chorus has the added advantage of increasing socialization, but Yonetani said such gatherings aren’t encouraged during the pandemic.

Bruce Greenberger is typically involved in multiple musical theater and singing groups, including You’ll Sing Along, which puts on concerts that ask the audience to join the performers in song. The group hopes to hold auditions in August if it is safe to proceed, he said.  

Even when unable to meet with other singers, music is a big part of the Village of Buttonwood resident’s life, whether singing on the job as a gate attendant or crooning his favorite tune, “Only You” by The Platters to his wife. The latter helps him make up for sometimes not being able to stop singing along to the movies she just wants to watch without background noise.

Besides making him feel good, he understands the benefits singing has for his mind, and encourages others to reap the benefits.

“If you listen to the radio and you like a song, you’re memorizing the music to the song so you can sing it,” Greenberger said. “It really does help your brain a lot.”