Choir Singing Can Improve Cognitive Functioning Among the Elderly

Summary: Seniors embarking on musical hobbies, such as joining choirs, show improvements in cognitive function and flexibility.

Source: University of Helsinki

Alongside the effects of lifestyle, including physical exercise and diet, on ageing, research has increasingly turned its attention to the potential cognitive benefits of musical hobbies. However, such research has mainly concentrated on hobbies involving musical instruments.

The cognitive benefits of playing an instrument are already fairly well known: such activity can improve cognitive flexibility, or the ability to regulate and switch focus between different thought processes. However, the cognitive benefits of choir singing have so far been investigated very little.

Now, a study recently published in the PLOS ONE journal provides evidence according to which choir singing may engender benefits similar to playing an instrument.

The results show that elderly singers had better verbal flexibility than those in the control group, who did not have choir singing as a hobby. Verbal flexibility reflects better cognitive flexibility.

“This supports findings previously gained on the effects of playing an instrument on the cognitive functioning of elderly people and gives some indications that choir singing too may potentially have similar beneficial effects. These findings increase our understanding of how different activities can shape cognition later in life, too,” says doctoral student Emmi Pentikäinen.

Those with a longer history of singing in a choir experience a greater feeling of togetherness

The study also looked into the potential benefits of choir singing for the emotional and social wellbeing of the elderly. Questionnaires used in the study demonstrated that those who had sung in a choir for a longer period, more than 10 years, felt greater social togetherness than those with less or no experience of choir singing.

Furthermore, study subjects who had started choir singing less than 10 years ago were happier with their overall health than those with longer singing experience and those who did not sing in a choir.

“It’s possible that the people who have joined a choir later in life have thus found the motivation to maintain their health by adhering to an active and healthy lifestyle. Then again, the relationships and social networks provided by being in a choir among those who have done it for longer may have become established as an integral part of their lives, therefore appearing as a greater feeling of social togetherness,” Pentikäinen assesses.

Choir singing requires versatile information processing

Ageing brings with it changes to the cognitive functioning as well as the physical and social environment of individuals, all of which have an impact on their wellbeing.

As the population ages, it is becoming increasingly important to identify ways of improving the wellbeing and quality of life of older adults.

According to Pentikäinen, choir singing provides a good opportunity to support the wellbeing of the elderly, as it requires flexible executive function and the regulation of attention.

The results show that elderly singers had better verbal flexibility than those in the control group, who did not have choir singing as a hobby. Verbal flexibility reflects better cognitive flexibility. Image is in the public domain

“Choir singing is easy to do in practice, with little cost. It’s an activity that requires versatile information processing, as it combines the processing of diverse sensory stimuli, motor function related to voice production and control, linguistic output, learning and memorising melodies and lyrics, as well as emotions roused by the pieces sung,” she notes.

The coronavirus pandemic too has demonstrated the significance of music and singing to people’s lives.

“People have been singing together on balconies and from open windows to lift their mood.”

The study was part of a longitudinal study focused on the long-term effects of choir singing on cognition as well as emotional and social wellbeing. It was carried out with the help of the initial dataset of the longitudinal study.

The study data was collected in autumn 2017 with a questionnaire and with the help of neuropsychological tests. A total of 106 choir singers and 56 control subjects took part in the questionnaire study, all of them at least 60 years of age.

The questionnaires measured the subjects’ cognition, mood, social engagement, quality of life and role of music in daily life. Of all the subjects, a smaller sub-cohort participated in a neuropsychological study where different areas of cognitive functioning were investigated.

About this cognition and aging research news

Source: University of Helsinki
Contact: Emmi Pentikäinen – University of Helsinki
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Beneficial effects of choir singing on cognition and well-being of older adults: Evidence from a cross-sectional study” by Emmi Pentikäinen et al. PLOS ONE


Abstract

Beneficial effects of choir singing on cognition and well-being of older adults: Evidence from a cross-sectional study

Background and objectives

Choir singing has been associated with better mood and quality of life (QOL) in healthy older adults, but little is known about its potential cognitive benefits in aging. In this study, our aim was to compare the subjective (self-reported) and objective (test-based) cognitive functioning of senior choir singers and matched control subjects, coupled with assessment of mood, QOL, and social functioning.

Research design and methods

We performed a cross-sectional questionnaire study in 162 healthy older (age ≥ 60 years) adults (106 choir singers, 56 controls), including measures of cognition, mood, social engagement, QOL, and role of music in daily life. The choir singers were divided to low (1–10 years, N = 58) and high (>10 years, N = 48) activity groups based on years of choir singing experience throughout their life span. A subcohort of 74 participants (39 choir singers, 35 controls) were assessed also with a neuropsychological testing battery.

Results

In the neuropsychological testing, choir singers performed better than controls on the verbal flexibility domain of executive function, but not on other cognitive domains. In questionnaires, high activity choir singers showed better social integration than controls and low activity choir singers. In contrast, low activity choir singers had better general health than controls and high activity choir singers.

Discussion and implications

In healthy older adults, regular choir singing is associated with better verbal flexibility. Long-standing choir activity is linked to better social engagement and more recently commenced choir activity to better general health.

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