Listening to Your Favorite Music May Prevent Cognitive Decline

Illustration of girl dancing in her bedroom with her dog napping on her bed

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Key Takeaways

  • Repeatedly listening to music that resonates with individuals may improve brain plasticity when dealing with mild cognitive impairments or the early stages of Alzheimer's.
  • Subtle differences in structural and functional brain changes were linked to the music listening in musicians, as compared to non-musicians.
  • This research bodes well for an accessible activity of repeatedly listening to music that is personally meaningful to promote brain health.

Music has a variety of benefits for its listeners. A recently published study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that listening to music that's meaningful to you can increase cognitive performance for Alzheimer's patients.

This study was conducted with 14 patients with mild cognitive impairments or Alzheimer's, six of whom were musicians, while eight were not, and neuroplastic mechanisms may improve cognitive functioning after listening to long known music, with varied mechanisms for the musicians.

Considering how enjoyable it can be to listen to music that really resonates with you, this research may offer an easy activity to increase cognitive performance in those dealing with Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairments.

Supporting the Brain With Tunes You Love

For this pilot study, patients in early cognitive decline who spoke English fluently and had an available caregiver were recruited to assess the benefits with a music-based intervention, among musicians and non-musicians.

Participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans before and after being asked to identify music that they had known for at least 20 years that had special meaning to them, and listen to it daily, alongside a new musical composition for approximately an hour per day for 3 weeks, with caregivers keeping logs and asking prompting questions.

Researchers found modest improvements in the cognitive performance, functional connectivity, and white matter of participants when listening to long-known music, but not the new musical composition, while musicianship improved outcomes even further.

Limitations of this study include its small sample size and the lack of a control group for comparison, but its findings provide fertile ground for future research on music-based interventions to improve cognition.

Evoking Powerful Emotions

Adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, says, “Personally meaningful music, like the song for the first dance of your wedding, deeply activates the brain."

Merrill notes that deep activation gives your memory a good workout, which strengthens the areas of the brain that degenerate in Alzheimer's. "It's the emotions that familiar music evokes that makes it so beneficial," he says.

Since emotional encoding of memories reaches deep and wide into the brain, Merrill highlights, "Taking a trip down memory lane with the help of old favorites can give the brain a boost, both cognitively and emotionally. Familiar music has a powerful ability to positively activate the brain."

Merrill further explains that the mechanisms at play here are likely multifactorial. "Listening to familiar music may be a way of reconnecting to meaningful prior relationships. We know that decreasing social isolation decreases stress, improves mood and memory," he says.

David A. Merrill, MD, PhD

Taking a trip down memory lane with the help of old favorites can give the brain a boost, both cognitively and emotionally. Familiar music has a powerful ability to positively activate the brain.

— David A. Merrill, MD, PhD

Given that working out to meaningful music may synergistically benefit the brain, Merrill highlights that research has demonstrated how exercise improves blood flow and growth factor release in the brain. 

Merrill says, "It will be interesting to see what future studies can be done combining personalized familiar music with activities like exercise, dance, or even singing. We may see that the best effects come with doing it all."

Having begun his career as a volunteer, dealing with advanced Alzheimer's, Merrill notes, "Most days, we'd have a sing-along hour. It was amazing to see patients who otherwise rarely spoke suddenly break into full-throated renditions of classics like, "Raindrops keep fallin' on my head."

Merrill highlights how these new research findings make sense, as moving songs can have an effect that lasts. "It's important to use the power of music to heal the mind, in older age especially,” he says.

Accessible Music-Based Intervention

Psychology professor and director of the Auditory Cognition and Development Lab at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Erin Hannon, PhD, says, “This is an initial finding but the results are promising."

Hannon explains, "More research is definitely needed, but for now, listening to well-known music that evokes strong autobiographical memories is something everyone enjoys, it’s engaging and very easy to do."

Especially since there are no side effects, Hannon says, "Given the ease, accessibility, and minimal harm of this type of music listening intervention, it could be beneficial to people even if it is not yet fully understood."

Hannon further highlights, "It's interesting that they found effects in musicians as well as non-musicians. There have been studies showing beneficial effects of musicianship in aging, but this study found that beneficial effects of music listening were also evident in non-musicians."

Erin Hannon, PhD

More research is definitely needed, but for now, listening to well-known music that evokes strong autobiographical memories is something everyone enjoys, it’s engaging and very easy to do.

— Erin Hannon, PhD

While Hannon notes that some research limitations include the fact that they mixed people with Alzheimer's and mild cognitive impairments and only had 14 participants, she says, "On the whole, this is an exciting initial finding that should stimulate further research in this area."

Hannon explains, "It would be important to test this intervention with much larger groups of people with Alzheimer's vs. mild cognitive impairments, and between musicians and non-musicians."

Since it is not clear why they observed the brain changes that they did and assumed reduction in activity translates to greater efficiency, Hannon notes that more research is needed to understand the changes they observed.

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, repeated listening to personally meaningful music may improve cognitive performance when dealing with either Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairments. These findings can better inform the accessible integration of such music into activities for individuals who may be navigating cognitive decline.

1 Source
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  1. Fischer C, Churchill N, Leggieri M et al. Long-Known Music Exposure Effects on Brain Imaging and Cognition in Early-Stage Cognitive Decline: A Pilot StudyJournal of Alzheimer's Disease. 2021;84(2):819-833. doi:10.3233/jad-210610

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.