Music as Medicine – How Music can Enhance Health for Older Adults

The ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, on whose teachings the Hippocratic Oath is based, believed in the power of music as medicine. He prescribed music to treat depression, anxiety, and other ailments.

Feeling depressed? Hippocrates would prescribe a session of harp playing.

Feeling anxious? He would recommend a session of drumming.

So, 2000 years ago, an ancient Greek understood the power of music to address wellbeing.

The research on music as medicine

There is now plenty of research that supports Hippocrates’ approach. The power of music as medicine has been studied in a wide range of situations and patient populations, from premature babies to paediatric emergency rooms to anxious pre-surgery patients to people whose immune systems needed boosting.

Music as medicine for dementia and Alzheimer’s

Another important area of research is music as medicine for older adults. Numerous studies have shown that music can improve cognitive function, reduce agitation and aggressive behaviours, and reduce depression for people living with dementia. (1) (2) Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.  When someone who has been quite disengaged and withdrawn suddenly comes alive when hearing a familiar song, and even begins to sing along and dance, it is an amazing experience for all.

Reminiscence therapy

For older adults, the power of music as medicine lies in the power of Reminiscence Therapy. This is the use of various means to bring back memories of youth. Music is one of the most powerful means of achieving this.

But the research has also shown that the music must be age-appropriate. It serves little purpose subjecting most eighty-year-olds to rap or hip hop. In fact, the wrong music can increase agitation. Whilst music preferences vary from person to person at any stage of life, there are many artists and songs that bring joy and connection to many older adults. And, the studies are showing, this music can improve mental and physical health in this group.

So music can be powerful medicine but without some of the side effects that can come with medicine of the pharmaceutical kind.

(1)   Gulliver A, Pike G, Banfield M, Morse AR, Katruss N, Valerius H, Pescud M, McMaster M, West S. The Music Engagement Program for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: Pilot feasibility trial outcomes. Eval Program Plann. 2021

(2)   Silver Memories Research Program, University of QLD, Funded by Federal Department of Health (2018)

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