Art Works Blog

The Effects of Singing on Older Adults

The number of older adults is rapidly increasing throughout the world. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of adults over age 65 in the U.S. will almost double by 2030. There is a pressing need to develop novel, sustainable, and cost-effective approaches for promoting health and well-being among elders residing in our communities. Although not yet widely recognized, community arts programs may be a unique approach to achieving those ends. Choral singing is a practical activity that can be easily translated into many community settings. A 2009 Chorus America study reported that choral singing is the most popular arts hobby in the U.S.---32.5 million adults regularly sing. Choral programs can also be offered at relatively low cost and can provide opportunities for cultural expression.

In San Francisco, several agencies recently teamed up to study how community choirs might improve the health and well-being of older adults. I am currently directing a project called “Community of Voices/Comunidad de Voces." The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the San Francisco Community Music Center, and 12 San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services senior centers are working together on a five-year research project funded by the National Institute on Aging. The project will examine whether singing in a community choir program is a cost-effective way to promote health and well-being among a large cohort of culturally diverse older adults.

Prior to the start of this project, I spent six months in Jyväskylä, Finland as a Fulbright Scholar studying the relationship between community choirs and well-being of older adults in a country that supports lifelong involvement in music. During my stay, I was surprised to see how many community choirs there are in Finland, and that many people embrace choral singing as a lifelong hobby. My research in Finland, which is currently under review by a journal, confirmed that singing in a choir is one important factor for keeping older Finns healthy. My study only examined a group of elders at one point in time, so randomized intervention trials and longitudinal studies are still needed to better understand this relationship.

After returning to San Francisco, I showed up on the doorstep of the San Francisco Community Music Center (CMC), which had just been funded by the MetLife Foundation to start a choir for older adults called “Coro Solera/Solero Singers." The CMC board of directors had also recently identified the goal of reaching a greater number of older adults as central to the organization’s efforts. We became inspired by this synergy and started looking for grants to fund a larger study about how singing might promote healthy aging for older adults. Next, I talked to the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, and they were also supportive. We were ecstatic when the National Institute on Aging grant was funded.

Just a few weeks ago in January 2013, the UCSF research team began recruiting adults over age 60 to participate in the new choir that will be soon starting at the Mission Neighborhood Senior Center in San Francisco. Eleven additional senior centers in San Francisco will participate over the next 4.5 years. Each center will be randomized to either start immediately or wait six months to start the choir. All 12 senior centers will start a new choir. Before beginning the choir, all the participants in the study will complete a comprehensive assessment of their health and well-being. They will sing in a choir for one year, with additional assessments at six months and one year. The study builds on the prior study in 2006 by Gene Cohen and colleagues who found that, compared to a control group, older adults who sang in a choir for one year had fewer falls, fewer visits to the doctor, less loneliness, and higher morale.

We have so much to learn about how the arts impact human development. We need to better understand the basic mechanisms involved in the positive effect of music on the health and well-being of elders. We do know that choral singing can be a demanding activity that involves a combination of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social elements. It is possible that the combination of these elements makes choir singing particularly effective for promoting health in older adults. But there are no comprehensive conceptual models for elucidating just how singing can directly influence health and well-being, and more research is needed.

If the Community of Voices/Comunidad de Voces study results are positive, they may increase awareness of the health benefits of choral programs to complement current public health strategies by focusing on the health benefits of community arts programs. The study may also increase awareness of these programs as an affordable and sustainable way to promote health of elders and also encourage community arts programs to expand their reach to more culturally diverse elders. The results of the study will also highlight the importance of interagency community partnerships (e.g., community music centers and senior centers). Of course, there is also a chance that the results will be negative, but we will learn a lot in the process of scientific investigation. It is particularly challenging to apply scientific methods to study the impact of the arts and humanities on health and well-being. But we don’t want this to stop us from trying, lest we forget Plato’s missive:  “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

Dr. Julene Johnson, PhD, is a professor at University of California, San Francisco. She is a cognitive neuroscientist who also has a degree in music. 

For more information on arts and aging, please tune in to our public webinar on Wednesday, February 20 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.


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