Music may have even more benefits than many of us thought. From playing an instrument to being exposed to music during surgery, recent studies suggest that music can have positive effects on both mental and physical health.

A 2011 study conducted by clinical neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna–Pladdy and cognitive psychologist Alicia McKay, PhD, measured the cognitive benefits of playing a musical instrument as a child. The goal of the study was to measure whether or not learning how to play a musical instrument at a young age could affect our mental clarity in positive ways as we age. “Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older,” Hanna–Pladdy said.

To conduct the study, 70 healthy adults ages 60 to 83 were divided into three groups based on their level of musical experience. The study found that high–level musicians with at least ten years of musical training scored best on the cognitive tests. Musicians with one to nine years of musical training, as well as those with no musical experience, scored lower on the cognitive tests, thus highlighting a trend. Of the high–level musicians, half still played an instrument. Interestingly, those who still played an instrument did not perform any better on the cognitive tests than those who didn’t. “Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical,” Hanna–Pladdy said.

A second study, published in 2012, confirms Hanna–Pladdy and McKay’s earlier findings. This study suggests that to benefit most from musical training, one should begin before the age of nine and continue for ten years.

Apart from staving off cognitive decline, it’s also become increasingly evident that music can effectively serve further health needs of patients. For example, two musical therapists at Boston Children’s Hospital visit with patients in almost every unit. The therapists play for premature babies as well as to calm older children who are anxious about X rays or other procedures. They also assist in urgent situations, helping patients to relax when under stress.

A meta–analysis of 400 studies analyzing the link between music and our brains was conducted by a psychologist who studies neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal named David Levitin, as well as his colleagues. The analysis highlights evidence that music could reduce anxiety as well as affect immune response.

Another study, published in 2012 and led by Dr. Masanori Nimi, further supports the idea that music may be linked to the immune system–s response. For the study, mice were exposed to music for seven days before undergoing a heart transplant. The three groups of mice were exposed to either Verdi’s opera La Traviata, music from Enya or no music at all. Interestingly, those exposed to the opera music had a median survival time of 26.5 days, whereas mice exposed to Enya or no music at all had a survival rate less than half of that. The researchers concluded that exposure to the opera music had suppressed the immune response to the transplant, thus lengthening survival rates.

Although I’m not a scientist, it seems safe to say that there is indeed a palpable link between music and health. With more and more studies coming out in support of that link, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how music’s role in health care evolves.

Did You Know?

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is “the clinical and evidence–based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”

Perhaps one of the more publicized instances of this treatment involved Gabrielle Giffords, a former member of the United States House of Representatives who was critically injured in 2011 due to a gunshot wound to the head. Giffords, whose injury caused damage to the language pathways in her brain, relearned how to speak with the help of music therapist and certified brain injury specialist Meaghan Morrow. “Music is the other road to get back to language,” Morrow said.

Neuroplasticity, or the brain‘s ability to create new pathways when a pathway is damaged or blocked, can allow someone to regain his or her ability to speak. To regain speech ability, the alternate pathways must be discovered and then strengthened in order to use them. It was Morrow and music therapy that helped Giffords’s neuroplasticity, allowing her to regain her ability to speak.