How the Soundtrack of Your Youth Can Save Your Brain

The year was 1982. I was 14 years old, preparing for the big junior high dance.

I put on my best button-down shirt from Jamesway and popped the collar, then wiped the mud off my red high top sneakers.

I probably dabbed on a little too much of my dad’s Brut cologne, but what the heck did I know?

I wanted to smell good, just in case I finally got a girlfriend. Or at least scored a dance with Josie…

Sigh.

Though we were “just friends”, I was sweating buckets at the mere thought of asking Josie to dance. (Good thing I thought to slab on two layers of deodorant.) I was a nervous wreck climbing the steps into the school gym, where all of our dances were held.

Luckily, I found my best friend, Matt, right away. I remember “Heat of the Moment” by Asia was playing—our favorite song at the time. We high-fived and made our way to the top of the gym bleachers, to survey the scene from a bird’s-eye view.

And then there she was. I’d spotted Josie standing with a group of her friends, with no other boy in sight. She was the only thing I could focus on.

Of course, right at that moment, Air Supply’s  “Even the Nights Are Better” came through the speakers. All of the couples started pairing up for a slow dance. And that’s when the butterflies in my stomach started fluttering full-force.

Matt slapped me on the back and said, “Go… NOW!”

The walk down from the bleachers seemed like an eternity. And then, there I was… standing right in front of her. It felt like an out-of-body experience.

I somehow managed to mutter, “Uhh, hey…you, uh, wanna dance?”

The next thing I knew, her arms were draped around my neck. I was careful to keep my distance as we swayed stiffly back and forth. I tried to crack some jokes to ease the awkwardness.

After the song ended, she smiled, looked in my eyes and said, “That was nice. Thank you!”

I just had my first slow dance. I was on top of the world.

Such a sweet memory from my adolescence—when times were simple and innocent.

And up until recently, I never realized just how powerful reliving times like these could be. Especially for people with dementia…

The rejuvenating powers of music and memory

In fact, a team of researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand recently demonstrated how actively reliving past memories—particularly those involving nostalgic music and movement—helps dementia patients improve their quality of life, memory, mood, and social interactions.

The researchers set out to test the effectiveness of a specially designed music and creative dance program. A group of 26 older adults (63 to 95 years old) were split into three groups, based on the severity of their dementia (mild, moderate, or advanced).

All three groups participated in various music- and dance-based sessions involving singing, dancing, clapping, and instrument-playing. All of the songs played were songs either folk songs, traditional songs, or songs popular during their youth.

This exposure to familiar music and movement stimulated the patients’ implicit memories—the part of the memory used to complete tasks without thinking much about them, like typing on a keyboard, riding a bike, or brushing your teeth. The researchers found that these activities helped unlock this part of the patients’ memories, significantly improving their ability to complete daily tasks.

The researchers found that over the course of the study, even the participants who were usually passive and immobile began to share memories, spontaneously dance and show enthusiasm, and even crack jokes.

By week six of the 10-week study, a majority of the participants reported significant improvements in their quality of life and their cognitive abilities.

Dance away cognitive decline

When it comes to dancing specifically, recent research unveils the powerful benefits it has on reversing cognitive decline.

In a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, dancing to music was actually shown to reverse some of the signs of aging in the brain.

The study group was comprised of 14 females with an average age of 67, who participated in an 18-month dancing intervention.

Researchers found that dancing improved neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow and develop) in the subjects’ hippocampus—the part of the brain that regulates memory, learning, emotion, and motivation.

This is particularly important because the hippocampus is often one of the first regions of the brain targeted by Alzheimer’s disease.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, concluded:

“I believe that everybody would like to live an independent and healthy life, for as long as possible. Physical activity is one of the lifestyle factors that can contribute to this, counteracting several risk factors and slowing down age-related decline. I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.”

The long-term benefits of getting your groove back

The takeaway for today is this: Music and movement provide a natural healing environment—especially for dementia patients. And not only that, it can greatly improve their quality of life in addition to their cognitive function.

Better yet, these brain benefits can help protect us all—even if you don’t have a family history of dementia or symptoms of cognitive decline. It’s never too early to start nourishing your brain!

Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Think about music you loved from your earlier years. You could make a playlist on your favorite streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music, or even dust off your vinyl record collection.

  2. Make time at least twice per week to just listen to music and let your body move naturally.

  3. Keep in mind that you don’t need to be musically inclined or the best dancer to reap the benefits. Actually doing the activity is what provides the most benefit. Any movements you make to the music will help your brain!

  4. Exercise your memory by thinking about what music you associate with certain times in your life.

    Can you remember what song played during your first slow dance? What did you used to sing at the top of your lungs with your best friend? Can you recall your first concert?

    Drop me a line on the Sound Health Facebook page… I’d love to hear what music you associate with your most cherished memories.

Always remember that taking time to reflect on life’s sweet little moments is great not only for your brain, but your soul as well.

Be Well,

Jim Donovan, M.Ed.

P.S. – For more ways you can use music to improve your cognitive health, I recommend looking into my Brain Healing Therapeutic Audio Toolkit. It features deep tribal drumming—the perfect type of rhythm to wake up your brain, help you stay focused, and protect your cognition for decades to come!

SOURCES:

Choo, T., Barak, Y., and East A., (2019). The Effects of Intuitive Movement Re-embodiment on the Quality of Life of Older Adults With Dementia: A Pilot Study. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias. Retrieved from: journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1533317519860331

Rehfeld, K., et al. (2017). Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Retrieved from: frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00305/full

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.