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Many of us enjoy listening to music for various reasons, whether in a social setting, while driving in the car or relaxing alone.

However, the activity could be more than just a fun pastime due the potential benefits to our health and wellbeing.

In his BBC Sounds podcast, Just One Thing, Dr Michael Mosely looked at the multiple effects of music on both the mind and body.

One such effect was the potential to “benefit memory and brain power” – something that is of particular interest as we get older.

During the podcast episode, Dr Mosely spoke to neuroscientist Dr Psyche Loui, from Northeastern University in Boston.

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She shared some of her research into music and brain health.

“We’ve been looking at how receptively listening to music might change brain activity,” she told Dr Mosely.

“So this is a longitudinal study and we were interested in healthy ageing older adults, music therapists worked with them to curate pieces of music and playlists that were both energising and relaxing that they then listened to for an hour a day every day for eight weeks while journaling this whole experience.

“And before and after this intervention, we ran neuropsychological tests, we ran electroencephalography, and we also collected functional MRI data, and what we so was that there was an increase in functional connectivity, specifically between the auditory areas of the brain and the centres of the brain that are important for emotion and reward.

“They became more functionally connected after this intervention.”

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Dr Loui explained that the link between the auditory and reward centres in the brain meant more than just the fact that the person was enjoying the music.

She continued: “The reward system it’s important for a variety of functions such as learning and motivation.

“So I think what music is, is really about an auditory channel towards these centres that are important for learning and also for social functions as well.

“This reward system decreases in its activity and functionally connectivity in ageing, and so what we’re seeing is that music kind of rescues that connectivity, so hopefully this could be useful for targeting folks with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr Loui said listening to music was also shown to boost memory and cognitive skills, as well as combating loneliness, in her research.

Performing music, as opposed to just listening to it, also had its benefits.

“When you look at younger children, children with more intense musical training tend to do better in a variety of cognitive tests and academic tests,” Dr Loui said.

“And then in older adulthood, older adults who have had more musical experience tend to have better cognitive functions and are also better able to hear speech in a noisy environment.

“Recently we’re also seeing that the insular cortex, which is an older area of the brain, that tends to be better connected towards a few other systems in the brain in people who have more musical experience.”

Other health benefits of music

Dr Mosely shared how listening to music could lower your risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

“In a small but fascinating study, 10 volunteers spent 30 minutes either listening to music they found joyful or listening to a relaxation tape,” he said.

“When people listened to music their blood vessels dilated or opened up to a much greater extent than when they were listening to the relaxation tape.

“More elastic blood vessels means better cardiovascular health and improved blood flow to your tissues.”

He explained that hearing music we like can release endorphins and nitric oxide, helping blood vessels maintain elasticity and function.

“Those feel good endorphins could also help explain why listening to music can help ease pain,” he added.

“In a study where patients were randomly allocated to either listening to music or not after having had surgery, the researchers found those who got the music needed on average 18 percent less morphine than the music free control group.”

To reap the benefits of music, Dr Loui said all types of listening could be worthwhile – whether “mindful” listening, listening to music in the background or dancing to music.

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