Miguel Garcia has tears in his eyes while he’s singing a an old Righteous Brothers tune. This song brings back memories. He’s wearing a red Manchester United jersey, navy blue track pants and bright green flip flops. Sixty one year old Garcia is used to having a microphone in front of him, so he begins belting out a medley of his favorite songs. He says that his past was at times, well, unhealthy.
“This is my escape. I was in drugs and alcohol for 20 years, but I’m clean ten years. Thank god I am living now but my escape is music, you know.”
Now, he says music keeps him from being lonely. His favorite thing to do is sing karaoke at bars around the city.
“My nickname in karaoke is Muñeco. I practice about 100 songs in Spanish and English, and I sing in Italian, too.”
Today, Garcia isn’t singing just for pleasure, he’s actually part of an ongoing experiment that’s testing his mental health, through song. He’s part of a choir at the Western Addition Senior Center. It’s part of a larger network of choral groups that are being studied to determine how singing with others affects the mental and physical health of seniors.
Julene Johnson, a cognitive neuroscientist who’s leading the study at University of California San Francisco. She believes the group will see both mental and physical improvements.
“We predict that singing in a choral group compared to a randomized control group, we will see improvements or less decline in measures of cognition, lower body function, and also the psychosocial aspects that we’re looking at,” says Johnson.
The idea of exercising your mind using music isn’t new. There is actually a part of the brain, called the motor center that responds to rhythmic cues, and goes into a sort of autopilot mode when responding to music, especially when it’s music we are familiar with, but Johnson believes something different happens when seniors sing in a group.
“There was an important study that was done by Gene Cohen, where he looked at older adults who sang in a choir for a year and looked at the health benefits of that and he found that older adults who sang in the choir for a year had fewer falls, they had fewer over the counter medications, their moral was higher, and there was a hint that their depressive symptoms were less than the control group,” Johnson adds.
The Community of Voices Study goes further; it pin-points exactly why there were fewer falls, and tests how singing effects cognitive memory.
Over the next four years Johnson and her team will observe twelve choirs diverse San Francisco neighborhoods. Seniors, who have never sung in choirs before, will practice everything from gospel to cumbia. Researchers will gather data on whether memorizing music and interacting with peers has an effect on healthy aging.
“The music that we’re doing in the study is not like a sing-along,” Johnson says. “We’re not just tapping into songs that everybody knows and that we’re just singing one time through or something. This is really meant to be a learning experience so that they’re using their memory and their mind and really have to learn and listen to new music rather than just singing tunes that they’ve already known for 20,30,40 or 50 years.”
Learning a new tune
At another senior center in a neighborhood called Merced Heights, Marjorie Wong is getting assessed by Johnson’s team of researchers before she’s assigned to a choir. Wong is 75 years old, but she says she doesn’t feel old.
“It saddens me to see some of my friends get old, you know they slow down, and they get diseases and all that kind of stuff,” she says.
During the first part of the assessment, a researcher records Wong’s ability to remember words a computer is telling her. This tests her memory, because, as Johnson explains, when you’re learning new music, you’re learning a lot of cognitive thinking skills.
“If you can just imagine learning a new tune on the radio, you can just imagine you have to listen to that, you have to pay attention to that melody and the rhythm you have to listen to the words, and the process of rehearsing that over and over is the learning process,” Johnson says.
She explains that learning music is like coordinating a symphony in your brain between parts like the cerebellum and frontal cortex. As that symphony gets better, your mind becomes stronger and more alert.
“If you do that in a group, like a choir, you’re listening to your neighbor and the group so that you’re matching. All of that process is really important for the brain, and in a social context there’s emotional reactions to the music or to the beauty of the music and all this gets wrapped together and really works your brain.”
After Wong completes the mental exercises, she’s asked to do a few physical tests with an accelerometer. This measures her balance. She rises up and down in a chair, stands on one foot with her eyes closed, and walks up and down the hall in a straight line. After six months of singing, she’ll go through these same tests again, and her results will be compared against other groups, as well as her original stats.
Across town at the Centro De Latino Community Centre in the Mission, another choir is learning a Oaxacan love song. Martha Martinez, 66, is standing in the front row. She says she enjoys learning new songs, and that she loves feeling like she is part of something.
“You often make new friends. I think that process of having a goal and working on something together that’s aesthetically beautiful in a group, there’s something unique about that,” says Martinez.
Ultimately, the study wants to promote singing as a way for seniors to feel included in their communities, regardless of the health benefits. There are over 40 million people in the United States over the age of 65, and that number is projected to double by the year 2040. So if this study is successful, it could mean that the prescription for improving your mental health, may just be to learn a song.
This story originally aired on January 30, 2014.
For more information about the Community of Voices choir, click here.