Everyone knows that singing makes you feel good! Now researchers are trying to prove that there are significant health benefits for those suffering from long term illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, MS and even respiratory diseases.
A little over a year ago, I was traveling on business in Hong Kong. My Mother who suffers from coronary artery disease had been off of her blood thinners for a period of time because she suffered a GI bleed from the medication she takes to keep her blood thinned. I got a call from Geoffrey explaining that Mom had suffered a mild stroke as a result of being off the blood thinners.
There is nothing more frightening than being a full day away, on the other side of the globe when you get a piece of news like this. Mom was so fortunate, the stroke was very light and it did not leave her with more than a little weakness in her left hand. We did however enroll her in an in-house rehab center for a month in order to bring all of the muscles back to their pre-stroke state. This is where I first saw the amazing results that can be achieved through singing.
One afternoon while visiting mom at the home (as I called it), a music therapist came in for a group session with the patients. These were patients that were mostly wheel chair bound, and suffering from disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, stroke, and other disorders that affect the aging.
I had gotten to know these patients from visiting daily, and many suffered significant memory loss, and many were unable to put together a full sentence. On this day, the wheel chairs were lined around the room and the music began to play. Mom had no desire to participate in the activity so she and I stood at the door to watch as the singing began.
As the room filled with show tunes and songs from the 40′s, 50′s and 60′s, the most incredible thing happened. All of the patients began to sing the lyrics and it was as if their minds and bodies were transformed back to the time in their lives when they were younger, and these songs filled their lives joyfully.
I was just awestruck by this event. I saw people who rarely spoke, and several whom I thought were past a point of return begin to sing these songs and most importantly, they knew most all of the words. Music therapy, the simple act of singing songs, unlocked a place in their brains that allowed them to remember the words from the past, in spite of their health issues.
As I stood watching and listening at the door, and with tears streaming down my cheeks, I witnessed this miracle of music. I think my Mom was a little confused by my outward state of emotion. I guess she finally realized that part of my emotions stemmed from her present situation – I realized she could have been left in a state similar to any one of these patients from the stroke she had suffered. But by the grace of God, she was not.
Wolfgang Bossinger has been a music therapist in psychiatric hospitals in Germany for 25 years. Spurred on by the runaway success of a choir he formed in his own hospital in 2006, he decided to found Singing Hospitals in 2009.
There are now 11 certified hospitals that run choirs for patients around Germany, with one in Romania and the first in Austria opening this year.
Very little scientific research has been undertaken to back very real claims that singing can be therapeutic. Nevertheless, the UK-based Sydney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health has been trying to promote the value of singing for wellbeing since 2005.
This in my opinion is medicine at its best. It is an escape from the drug companies pushing yet one more expensive pill towards our aging society. It is sweet, it is joyous, it is quite simply, music to my ears! pkp
Story & Photos by: DW-WORLD.DE – Deutsche Welle
Health – 31.01.2011
Author: Sarah Stolarz
Monica was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease almost nine years ago and she has been a member of the Sing for Joy choir ever since. The choir was set up in 2003 especially for sufferers of the progressive neurological condition.
“My voice can go quite easily when my Parkinson’s is bad,” she said. “The singing can help me to project, it keeps my mouth muscles exercised because Parkinson’s can actually atrophy all your muscles if you don’t work really hard and the voice is like any other muscle, if you don’t work it, it goes.”
New field of research
Surprisingly, very little scientific research has been undertaken to back very real claims like these. Nevertheless, the UK-based Sydney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health has been trying to promote the value of singing for wellbeing since 2005.
“People who are working in medicine and thinking about health issues from a medical perspective have not really considered the role that creative activities can have for people in relation to their health,” commented director Stephen Clift.
The center is about to embark on a major study on the value of singing for people with chronic respiratory illness. The study will use standardized assessment techniques to measure lung function, breathing patterns and general activity levels before and after a course of singing lessons.
Clift hopes to prove that breathing control elements involved in singing could be a useful intervention in helping people manage their condition and, importantly, to manage stress levels.
Parkinson’s attacks muscles, including the vocal chords. “Breathlessness can be very anxiety provoking and frightening and so they have to learn to manage that,” said Clift. “We think singing could give people the confidence to do more than they think.”
It is not just scientific snobbery that is to blame for the delay in research results, warms Clift. “Creative artists such as musicians or painters have a little bias against thinking about what they are doing from a scientific perspective,” he said. “It’s very much a case of bringing together two areas of life which are seen to be very separate.”
Wolfgang Bossinger has been a music therapist in psychiatric hospitals in Germany for 25 years. Spurred on by the runaway success of a choir he formed in his own hospital in 2006, he decided to found Singing Hospitals in 2009. There are now 11 certified hospitals that run choirs for patients around Germany, with one in Romania and the first in Austria opening this year.
“Forming choirs allows us to create a social network,” said Bossinger. “This helps people not to get back in isolation once they have left hospital and allows them to feel connected in this group,” he continued.
It is this socializing aspect that is especially powerful for sufferers of diseases like Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis that often leave people housebound and cut off from society, which in turn can accelerate the degeneration of their condition.
Singing, says Bossinger, was also especially helpful in the rehabilitation of female cancer patients. “We found singing groups can help them to deal with the grief,” he said. The choir provided a forum for women to come together with other women and share their emotional pain, he added, and “they become much stronger on a psychological level.”
Music therapy is already used to treat mental illnesses, among other things. Singing is not just of value for those already suffering from a disease, argues Günter Kreutz, Professor of systematic musicology at the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg. Kreutz will be publishing a volume on music, health and wellbeing in 2011 that will bring together research across the fields of music, psychology and music therapy for the first time.
“Those who have learned a musical instrument in their life, or who dance regularly are less prone to develop degenerative diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s or dementia so there is some initial evidence that cultural activities in the long run can have significant health benefits and reduce health risks significantly,” he said.
Singing for all, Health benefits aside
Singing remains a joyful, universal activity. “Originally, music was something in all cultures where everybody was involved,” said Bossinger. According to Bossinger, research has shown that when people sing a mantra together, their hearts beat together.
“When people sing together it is not only emotional vibrating together it’s even the whole physiology – the bodies vibrate together, he said. “This is the really interesting thing that it touches us so deep that it’s like a resonance field vibrating together”.
For Parkinson’s sufferers like Monika, being surrounded by music has helped her do things she thought would never be possible.
“When very rhythmic exciting music is being played, I can dance like I used to be able to – it is extraordinary,” she said. “I don’t understand it, but I love it!”