veryone knows the soothing effect of listening to a favorite piece of music. But until recently, there was little scientific evidence to support its effectiveness in helping to combat specific health problems.
Now: A growing body of research has found that music can affect key areas of the brain that help regulate specific physiological functions necessary for good health. The best choice of music and the time spent listening depends on an individual's needs and preferences. Medical conditions that can be improved by listening to appropriate music...
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
The hypothalamus helps control the autonomic nervous system, which regulates our breathing, heartbeat and other automatic responses in the body. It also is linked to emotional activity. How music helps: When a person listens to music that stimulates positive memories and/or images, the activity of the hypothalamus helps slow a person's heart and respiration rates as well as blood pressure.
Scientific evidence: In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, 75 adults performed a stressful three-minute math problem. Afterward, they were randomly assigned to sit in silence or listen to classical, jazz or popular music. Those who heard classical selections had significantly lower systolic (top number) blood pressure levels than those who heard no music. Blood pressure did not significantly improve in people who listened to the other selections.
What to do: Observe how you respond to different types of music. Match your state of mind to the tempo and dynamics. Example: If you are agitated, listen to something with a strong, fast beat, then gradually switch to slower and softer music. This can reduce stress and lower blood pressure.
Although healthy adults typically fall asleep within 30 minutes, adults age 50 and older often have more trouble falling -- and staying -- asleep. How music helps: Soft, restful music can act as a sedative by reducing the amount of the stress-related neurotransmitter noradrenaline that circulates in the bloodstream.
Scientific evidence: Sixty people ages 60 to 83 who reported sleep difficulties took part in a study at Tzu-Chi General Hospital in Taiwan. After three weeks, researchers found a 35% improvement in sleep quality, length of sleep, daytime dysfunction and sleep disturbances in subjects who listened to slow, soft music at night. The most effective types of music used in the study were piano versions of popular "oldies," New Age, harp, classical and slow jazz.
What to do: Make sure your bedroom temperature is comfortable, then lie in bed at your usual bedtime, with the lights out (light interferes with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin) and your eyes closed while listening to music. Experiment with different types of music until you discover what's relaxing for you. If you wake during the night, try listening to music again.
Listening to music does not eliminate pain, but it can help distract your brain by creating a secondary stimulus that diverts your attention from the feeling of discomfort.
Scientific evidence: In a 14-day study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, 66 older adults with osteoarthritis pain sat quietly for 20 minutes daily, while another group listened to music. Those who listened to music reported a significant decrease in pain.
What to do: For pain reduction, it's important to identify music that engages you -- that is, it should elicit memories and/or make you want to tap your foot, sway or even dance. Singing, which requires deep breathing, or using a simple percussion instrument (such as chimes or a drum), which does not require playing specific notes, also helps.
Bottom Line/Health interviewed Suzanne B. Hanser, EdD, chair of the music therapy department at Berklee College of Music in Boston and past president of the American Music Therapy Association and the World Federation of Music Therapy. She is a research associate at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, also in Boston, where she investigates medical applications of music therapy.