Healing Harmonies: Testing the Power of Music to Improve Senior Health

UCSF Community Project Will Launch Choirs in San Francisco to Study Elder Wellbeing

A seniors' community choir rehearses at the Mission Neighborhood Centers. Over the next four years, a dozen such choirs will be created around San Francisco as part of a UCSF research project exploring whether singing can provide tangible health advantages to older adults.

Music – as poets have noted – has the power to wash away the dust of everyday life, and medical experts believe it may also imbue physical and social benefits.

Now a UC San Francisco research project is exploring whether singing in a community choir can provide tangible health advantages to older adults.

Over the next four years, a dozen choirs will be created at senior centers around San Francisco. The first group already has launched at the Mission Neighborhood Centers, and recruitment of choir members is underway in the Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods.

To join Community of Voices, choir members must be 60 years of age or older – no prior choral experience is needed. Altogether, approximately 400 seniors will take part in weekly, 90-minute singing sessions over the course of a year.

Read more about this study on senior choirs in the latest edition of the School of Nursing's Science of Caring.

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The project will assess the impact on participants’ cognition, mobility and overall wellbeing during their choral year. The researchers also will examine whether singing in a community choir is a cost-effective way to promote health among culturally diverse older adults.

Community of Voices is a collaboration among UCSF, the nonprofit San Francisco Community Music Center, and the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services. The Community Music Center is providing choir directors and other professional music leadership.

“We evaluate a variety of health outcomes and try to measure the mechanism of health changes – we’ll look at mood, loneliness and memory,” said principal investigator Julene Johnson, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the UCSF School of Nursing’s Institute for Health & Aging. Johnson, who studies mild cognitive impairment in older adults, also is an amateur musician who plays flute and has sung in community choirs.

“We’ll study whether the choir singing helps participants get stronger, fall less, and whether it improves their balance,” Johnson said.

“The goal is to provide scientific-based evidence that community arts programs can be used to promote health," she added. "Everyone says ‘Yes, of course they must be good for us,’ but we don’t have enough evidence yet.”

Music Can Strengthen Neural Connections

Scientific study on the therapeutic impact of music is still somewhat in its infancy, but scientists have learned that music activates certain regions in the brain and can strengthen neural connections. Research has shown that people who participate in choral singing may have better health and stronger social ties than non-singers.

Julene Johnson, PhD

Johnson’s new study in San Francisco builds upon pioneering research that she conducted in Finland as a Fulbright Mid-Career scholar in 2010. Exploring the effect of musical arts upon aging in a country with a wide abundance of choral groups, she learned that singing in a choir is an important factor in keeping older Finns healthy.

Johnson is the lead author of a paper based on her Nordic research being published in the July 2013 issue of International Psychogeriatrics.

In the San Francisco study, the first choir at the Mission Neighborhood Centers – led by conductor Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, a Community Music Center faculty member – has approximately 20 members who are singing in both English and Spanish. All participants underwent baseline health assessments prior to the start of the choir, and they will complete two other health evaluations midway and at the end of their singing year.

“You can see through the smiles of the singers how they feel about being in the choir,” said Maria Bermudez, operational director of the Mission Neighborhood Centers. “The choir helps people in so many ways. It helps them avoid isolation at home, it helps with mental retention, and it makes people feel like they are part of a team. This is a great project, and a great way for people to learn a new skill.”

Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, a Community Music Center faculty member who

conducts the senior choir at Mission Neighborhood Centers, leads a rehearsal.

Accomplished musician Maestro Curtis, a Grammy-nominated music producer, will lead the choirs at the Western Addition Senior Center and the Bayview Opera House with the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center.

“Music is a universal language, it brings joy,” said Curtis, whose wife Nola will provide piano accompaniment to the singers. “It allows people to feel productive, to become a part of something. For older people, this is very valuable. Our senior citizens are a treasure, and I want to do what I can to help them enjoy the rest of their lives on this planet.” 

The project is funded by the National Institute of Aging (R01AG042526).  

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

Photos are stillframes from video by Elisabeth Fall/fallfoto.com