“Opera singer’s secret” to a sharper brain?

Dear Reader,

During the early days of the coronavirus lockdowns, I remember watching compelling news footage of people stepping outside onto their balconies to sing in Italy and in Spain.

It was a wonderful expression of hope and connection during a grim, isolating time.

Now, scientific research shows this “opera singer’s secret” can do a lot for our health—especially our brain health.

I’ll tell you all about that remarkable research in just a moment. But first, let’s back up…

Singing supports human health and bonding 

Anthropologists believe humans perhaps gained the ability to sing more than 500,000 years ago. They believe breaking out in song played a key role in bonding and social advancement.

Modern science shows singing also has a direct, positive impact on health, including helping to:

Research shows singing also helps improve your mood by turning on the production of “feel-good” hormones—like dopamine and oxytocin—and by lowering stress and aging hormones, like cortisol. And in one recent study, singing helped people who’ve lost a loved one deal with their grief.

Now, an interesting study shows how singing (or listening to) a familiar song can help prevent cognitive decline in people suffering from dementia…

Music IMPROVES cognitive function and memory

Researchers executed daily musical interventions over a 10-week period in nearly 89 people diagnosed with dementia.

The researchers divided participants into three groups:

  1. The first group sang a familiar song daily for 10 weeks.
  2. The second group listened to a familiar song for 10 weeks.
  3. The third group received usual care—without musical intervention.

The participants also underwent rigorous cognitive testing before and after 10 weeks of intervention and again six months late.

Compared to those who didn’t get musical intervention, those who sang or listened to music each day IMPROVED overall cognition, orientation, attention, executive function, and mood at 10 weeks. They also had better “working memory” and “autobiographical” memory of their childhood compared to the others!

I should note that most of the improvements did not persist after stopping the musical activities (with the exception of better “autobiographical” memory). So, it’s likely that people with dementia must continue with daily musical intervention to reap the sustained benefits.

It’s never too late to start singing

In the 1931 Marx brothers’ movie Monkey Business, Maurice Chevalier sang, “If the nightingales could sing like you, they’d sing much sweeter than they do…”

(My French grandfather actually knew Chevalier well. I have pictures of him with my grandfather and with my mother as a child, who’s sitting on his knee.)

But the research I discussed here suggests you don’t have to sing like a nightingale to gain truly remarkable health benefits. Including protection against cognitive decline!

All it takes is continuously listening to or singing along with some favorite tunes.

That’s good news for me, personally, since I have experienced singing or humming along (or simply just listening) to jazz, early rock-and-roll, classical, or opera when I’m in the car or working around the house.

You can learn MORE about the brain benefits of singing and listening to music—along with some of my personal favorite tunes—in the February 2022 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“Name that tune: Your favorite music can amplify brain function [even in Alzheimer’s patients!]”) If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.

P.S. In the mid-1990s, I met opera star Placido Domingo in the “green room” before appearing on “Good Morning America” to discuss my new textbook on herbal and nutritional medicine.

We talked and he described how his own grandmother in Spain grew, prepared, and used herbal remedies. We joked that perhaps he could talk about herbal medicine…and I could try singing…during our on-air TV segments.

A few years later, I took my daughter to the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., after Placido had become the director there. He was in the lobby and warmly remembered our meeting in New York.