I had the chance to catch up with my friend Nicole a couple of months ago. She had recently come back from a few days of downhill skiing in Vermont with her 14-year-old son and her 91-year-old father.
Yes, you read that right. Her 91-year-old father went with her… and he still skis.
I was surprised myself when she told me. So of course I asked her his secret. . .
Nicole told me a little about her father and how he likes to keep active. She said one of his favorite activities is singing. He sings weekly in his church choir, a barbershop quartet, and in a large men’s chorus.
That’s a lot of singing.
The story of Nicole’s father got me wondering. Could singing really be why he’s so vibrant at 91? So I took a look to see if there was any new research on the topic. And I found quite a lot.
In the last 20 years or so there’s been a significant increase in the number of papers published on the benefits of singing. And according to various studies, singing has physical, physiological and psychological benefits.
“Singing involves virtually every muscle group, vibrating the whole system like a tonic massage.” That’s how Dr. James Le Fanu described it in an article he wrote for The Telegraph, a major newspaper in the UK. “It increases lung capacity, improves posture, clears the sinuses, and boosts mental alertness by increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood.”1
Singing even helps people with asthma and emphysema breath better. It also strengthens your immune system by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and increasing your level of immunoglobin A.
Singing may even ease pain. Patricia Preston-Roberts is a New York board-certified music therapist. She says, “Singing seems to block a lot of the neural pathways that pain travels through.”2
The More the Merrier
If you sing in a group, the benefits are even greater.
Singing with others profoundly affects people in a number of ways. Naturally there’s the social aspect of getting together with others. People with more social interactions as they get older tend to be happier and healthier. And it’s well known that lack of social contact is a risk factor for dementia.
But there’s more to it than that.
When a group of people collaborates to create a harmonious sound, they feel more connected. And this feeling is rendered even stronger by oxytocin – the bonding hormone – whose levels rise when you sing.
What’s even more amazing is the way singing in a group affects a person’s heartbeat.
Recent research from Sweden shows that people who sing together experience synchronized heart rhythms.3 As Sophia Efthimiou, a choir leader in the UK says, “We literally form one unified heart beat.”4
Singing also releases a slew of positive neurochemicals including beta-endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals give us that content, “life’s good” feeling — which may explain why people who sing in groups tend to feel happier than people who don’t.
Even Better News For Singing Seniors
Here’s where the benefits of singing are even more exciting. It turns out older people who sing in a group experience extraordinary and measurable health benefits.
In a study conducted by Dr. Gene Cohen at George Washington University, 166 older adults took part in a chorus that met every week for 30 weeks. Dr. Cohen expected to see a link between singing and better health, but he was astonished by the full extent of the difference.
“My surprise was not a factor of whether the intervention would work, but how big an effect it would have at an advanced age. The average age of all the subjects was 80.”
This group of seniors had on average 30 fewer visits to the doctor. They also needed less medication, had fewer problems with their vision and were less likely to feel depressed. And surprisingly, they had fewer falls and other kinds of injuries than non-singers.
Is singing the reason Nicole’s father still skis at 91? I can’t say for sure. But there’s no doubt the research shows our health and happiness can be improved by singing.