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Shall we sing?

While physical activity, healthy eating and cognitive stimulation have been the object of much research when it comes to healthy aging. However, research on the potential positive effects of musical activities has been largely limited to the practice of a musical instrument. The current study, published in the journal Plos One is thus rather unique as it investigates the benefits of choir singing on cognitive health.

Various research has already suggested that music can be a source of pleasure, learning and well-being. As the authors point out in their study’s introduction, musical training can also have positive repercussions on cognition through transfer effects on executive function, attention and memory. But what effect does singing have on neuroplasticity and cognitive function as we age? Indeed: "for the brain, singing is a highly versatile and multi-domain process, requiring the complex interplay of auditory, vocal-motor, linguistic, cognitive, and emotional processes." Emmi Pentikäinen, from the University of Helsinki in Finland (Department of Psychology and Speech Therapy) and her colleagues chose to focus on choir singing, which had already been shown to contribute to healthy aging, in particular by promoting psychological and social well-being. However, to date, only one study had attempted to show the cognitive benefits of choir singing (Fu MC, Belza B., Nguyen H., Logsdon R. et Demorest S., 2018), but as the study did not include a control group, the results (improvements in verbal fluency and memory) must be interpreted with caution.

The Finnish-American research team set up a longitudinal study in which 162 subjects over the age of 60 (a cohort of 106 singers and a cohort of 56 non-singing control subjects) were observed over a period of three years through questionnaires, neuropsychological tests (general cognition was assessed using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, MoCA) and electroencephalography (EEG). Note that the singers were assigned to groups according to years of experience (1 to 10 years; N = 58 vs >10 years; N = 48). The scientists hypothesized that the singers would show greater cognitive performance (particularly in tasks measuring executive function), as well as better mood, better social well-being, and better self-reported quality of life compared to control subjects. The results of the study are based on questionnaire data from the main cohort and on neuropsychological test data from a sub-cohort (n = 74).

It appears that the singers obtained better results than the control in terms of verbal flexibility (but not in the other cognitive domains). Additionally, subjects who had been in a choir for more than 10 years reported more satisfactory social well-being than those with less than 10 years or no experience in a choir. Nevertheless, less experienced singers were more satisfied with their general health than more experienced singers, and this was also true of the control group subjects.

According to E. Pentikäinen: “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.”

While the positive effects of choir singing on cognitive function require further investigation, it's certainly an activity that merits consideration when it comes to healthy aging.
Source: Emmi Pentikäinen, Anni Pitkäniemi, Sini-Tuuli Siponkoski, Maarit Jansson, Jukka Louhivuori, Julene K. Johnson, Teemu Paajanen, Teppo Särkämö, “Beneficial effects of choir singing on cognition and well-being of older adults: Evidence from a cross-sectional study”, in PLOS ONE, Feb. 2021 // University of Helsinki website: Re¬search¬ers in¬vest¬ig¬ate the health be¬ne¬fits of choir singing – In¬dic¬a¬tions of im¬proved cog¬nit¬ive func¬tion¬ing among the eld¬erly - // Fu MC, Belza B., Nguyen H., Logsdon R. and Demorest S. (2018). Impact of group-singing on older adult health in senior living communities: A pilot study. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 76, 138–146


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