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A Handle on your Health: Music & Health

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Have you ever been somewhere and heard a favorite song come on the radio and you were instantly transported to a memory that made you feel good? Music has the ability to affect us emotionally.  Music can pump us up before a big game or make us feel sad during a scene in a movie or make us feel relaxed when we’re stressed. It exists in all civilizations across the globe and has as far back as we can tell. No one knows for sure if it’s an accident or provides some evolutionary benefit to us. As we study the effects music has on us, we are finding it has many benefits.

There is a whole division of neurobiology dedicated to music. They found there are different areas of the brain dedicated to processing different components of music. Our brains know the difference between noise and music. The right side of the brain interprets pitch and melodies. The back of the brain recognizes rhythm, whereas the frontal cortex attaches memories to music. The pleasure center or "reward center" of the brain can respond to music by releasing dopamine just as it does when exposed to chocolate or alcohol.  

Athletes often use music to get pumped up during a workout or before a competition. It doesn’t take a scientist to know what happens to your heart rate and blood pressure when you listen to loud fast paced energetic music. Your heart rate increases and your blood pressure goes up.  The opposite happens when you listen to soothing, slow paced mood music. An Italian study verified these results but also found something interesting. The subjects who listened to the up tempo music initially had elevation of their blood pressure and heart rate but after they stopped the music their pressure and rate actually came down below their normal levels.

Nowhere is lowering blood pressure more important than in post stroke and heart attack patients.  The effects of music in these patients doesn’t stop at just  lowering blood pressure, though. In a study of heart attack patients in the ICU,  listening to classical music lowered their heart rates, their oxygen demands, their chances of dying over 6 months, and last but not least, their anxiety. Music that increased their anxiety reduced blood flow to their heart – not good. In post stroke patients, memory was significantly improved as was focused attention. In stroke patients, where their speech center is damaged, left side of brain, they could be taught to sing using the right side of the brain to relearn their speech. It’s unclear if music actually helps form new neuro connections as of yet, but these results are promising.

The "Mozart effect,” found by a University of California Irvine study, showed an increase in IQ testing results if subjects listened to 10 minutes of Mozart prior to testing. This effect was tested against no music and other forms of music and Mozart won every time. Unfortunately the effect was short lived.  So don’t run out and buy a bunch of Mozart songs just yet. The results are encouraging, though, and may just be a prelude to future studies.

A New York study found cataract patients undergoing surgery did better listening to music during surgery. They had lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and reduced anxiety.  Another New York study involving patients having urologic surgery showed they required less sedation medications if they listened to calm music. In fact, surgeons listening to music of their choice during surgery reported less stress and improved performance.

Cheerful music has been proven to improve depression and chronic pain in patients. Relaxing music has helped patients with sleep disorders to get more restful sleep.

In elderly patients with a history of falls, training them to walk in coordination with music (dancing) reduced their falls compared to subjects who just continued their normal activities. Parkinson’s patients show improved walking with music and dancing therapy.

Musicians have been found to have a remarkable connection to math and language abilities. Children that take up learning to play an instrument seem to develop improved learning abilities, even as late as in high school. Musicians also seem to be somewhat protected from hearing loss in later life. But before you run out and buy a piano, realize playing music isn’t shown to turn you into a genius yet.

Attending concerts may also help you live longer.  Now these results come from only one study in Sweden but appear to be real.  It is unclear how much of the effects come from the music itself versus the social aspect of attending concerts, but I gotta say I feel pretty good after attending a Willie Nelson concert.

So put on your favorite playlist and get healthy Hays County.  And remember, feel better.

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Dr. John Turner is a family medicine and emergency medicine doctor with 25 years of experience. He is also the owner of My Primary Care Clinic and My Emergency Room 24/7 here in Hays County. Dr. Turner may be reached at 512-667-6087.