Music and Medicine

By: Red Hot Mamas

Published: June 25, 2010

Ever get a tune stuck in your head and you just keep hearing it over and over? Our world is filled with music. From Mozart to Madonna; from the lullabies that drift babies to sleep to the spiritual music that inspires us; from cell phone rings to marching bands to singing in the shower. It is perhaps the oldest language and it carries messages and affects how we respond to stimuli.

Research has shown that music has a profound effect both on our body and our minds. After a stroke, people with difficulty speaking can learn to sing before they speak. Those having difficulty walking can learn movement through dance with music. A person who stutters is able to sing without stuttering. This has led to a growing field of health care known as Music Therapy, which uses music to help and heal conditions and diseases ranging from cancer to children with ADD; from pain management, to help with warding off depression, calming patients, and easing muscle tension. Clearly, music affects the body and mind in many powerful ways.

Music has also been used to convey messages for health and healing. Songs have been a principal means of preserving oral history before the written word, and music has been associated with healing since antiquity. The Greek god, Apollo, had dominion over both music and health; the Renaissance healer, Maimonides, was the first to prescribe music for healing the soul; and Native American Shamans played music while delivering their incantations and treatments.

Here are some of the ways that researchers have shown music to affect the body:

  1. Brain Waves: music with a strong beat can cause brainwaves to synchronize with the beat. Faster beats bring sharper concentration and thinking that is more alert; a slower tempo promotes a calm, meditative state. Over time, as the brain learns to react to music and become able to shift speeds more easily on its own. So music can bring lasting benefits to your state of mind, even after you’ve stopped listening.
  2. Breathing and Heart Rate: Learning how to alter brain waves can have other benefits as well. These slower brain waves can effect automatically controlled body functions, those which are under the control of the autonomic nervous system. Examples are breathing and heart rate. Slower and more relaxing music can slow breathing, slower heart rate, and an activation of the relaxation response, which helps to counteract the damaging effects of chronic stress.
  3. State of Mind: Music can lift your state of mind, which helps fight depression and anxiety and reduce the chronic effects that stress bring upon our bodies. So music is a great way to stay creative and optimistic.
  4. Other Benefits: Music can also lower blood pressure, an outcome that can reduce the risk of stroke and other health problems over time. It can also boost immunity, ease muscle tension, and more.

Here are some ways that music is being used to help prevent illnesses or to change behavior in a positive way, particularly outside of the United States.

  1. “Message songs” have been used as part of prenatal education in Mexico and water hygiene education programs in Bolivia. In the West African country of Benin, the village nurse travels with a village singer to inspire people to change their behaviors by singing about health issues. Most of the prenatal villagers there were uninterested in written material about nutrition and childhood vaccinations, however responded to the same material when placed into songs. Similar education was achieved about cholera and the need for water hygiene. In less than ten minutes, a song could be learned that taught the fundamentals of boiling water before drinking it and washing one’s hands and one’s children’s hands before eating.
  2. In 2000, Oxfam (Oxford Famine Relief) Hygiene promoters developed a song for refuges in Nyawama camp, Sierra Leone to help prevent dysentery. Their ‘health songs’, which e ncouraged people to take basic health-care precautions, include recipes for making oral-rehydration drinks from salt, sugar, and boiled water and helped to prevent dysentery from spreading or from being as lethal once contracted. A similar program was launched in 2004 by The International Centre for Eye Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It was a popular means of transmitting simple ‘nuggets’ of information to raise awareness about trachoma.
  3. The BBC World Service Trust developed radio spots in local languages in several countries, including Tanzania, Ghana, Niger, Ethiopia and Nepal. These trachoma message songs were broadcast several times per day for a number of months. In Ghana, they found that the trachoma song played on the radio was very well received and women and children in every village they visited could sing the song and understood key messages.

The United States also has a great need for improving health literacy to prevent illness. According to a 2004 report from the Institutes of Medicine, half the adult population of the United States—90 million Americans— are health illiterate. Health literacy is the degree to which individuals are able to obtain, process, and understand basic information and services needed to make the best decisions for their health.

Studies also show that people from all ages, races, and socioeconomic levels are challenged by this problem. According to the A merican Medical Association, individuals with low health literacy have as much as four times greater medical expenses than patients with adequate literacy skills, costing the health care system billions of dollars every year for unnecessary doctor visits and hospital stays. The problem is even worse because most patients hide their confusion from their doctors because they are ashamed or intimidated to ask for help. We know most women wait up to five years to tell their doctors that they have incontinence (loss of urine) because they are embarrassed to talk about it. Many people don’t get colonoscopies because they are afraid or embarrassed. Colon cancer kills more women than breast cancer, and osteoporosis that results in a hip fracture kills just as many women as breast cancer. Yet women are more likely to get a mammogram than a colonoscopy or a bone density.

Music is a great way to carry simple important health messages. For this reason, I created HealthRock® which is music with a health message that brings about positive behavior change. You can find some of my music on the Red Hot Mamas great web site. The Lullaby CD won an iParenting Media Award. The music in it was written when my father in law was going through chemotherapy and asked me to write some soothing music to help him relax and sleep. Thirty-seven percent of children in kindergarten to 4 th grade have at least one sleep related problem and sleep problems affect 70 million adults, especially those in menopause. The HealthRock® Women’s Edition has songs about mammograms, incontinence, colonoscopy, osteoporosis, menopause, menopause sleep problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, surviving cancer and more. The Red Hot Mama CD is not about health per se. It’s about life, laughter and love from a woman’s point of view. And it’s all about music. Enjoy.

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