Could choir singing be the source of eternal youth? Not quite, but a new study suggests it can serve as an easy, enjoyable, and low-cost way to stave off some of the less-than-desirable effects age can have on your brain and well-being.
New research has highlighted how joining a choir during life’s later years can have a number of benefits for a person's cognitive functioning, sociability, and well-being. As reported in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers argue their findings show that singing in a choir may even help to stave off cognitive decline in older people.
Previous work has associated choir singing with better mood and quality of life in healthy older adults. Furthermore, it’s well-established that musical hobbies, especially playing an instrument, can generate greater cognitive flexibility and boost cognitive skills.
This inspired scientists at the University of Helsinki to carry out a longitudinal study focused on the long-term benefits on cognition and well-being in older people. They gathered 162 healthy people aged over 60, including 106 people who had joined a choir group and 56 control subjects, and asked them to fill out regular questionnaires looking at their cognition, mood, social engagement, quality of life, and role of music in daily life. A smaller group of 74 participants were also assessed with a neuropsychological testing battery, a test that assessed six cognitive domains (general cognition, executive functions, processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, and verbal skills).
The results show that elderly singers had better verbal flexibility – which the researchers say can reflect better cognitive flexibility – than those who did not sing in a choir as a hobby. However, the choir group did not perform better than the non-choir singers in other cognitive domains. Choir singers also experienced better general health and social integration compared to the control group, although the researchers concede there may be other factors contributing to this.
“It's possible that the people who have joined a choir later in life have thus found the motivation to maintain their health by adhering to an active and healthy lifestyle. Then again, the relationships and social networks provided by being in a choir among those who have done it for longer may have become established as an integral part of their lives, therefore appearing as a greater feeling of social togetherness,” Emmi Pentikäinen, lead study author and doctoral student at the University of Helsinki's Cognitive Brain Research Unit, said in a statement.
"Choir singing is easy to do in practice, with little cost. It’s an activity that requires versatile information processing, as it combines the processing of diverse sensory stimuli, motor function related to voice production and control, linguistic output, learning and memorising melodies and lyrics, as well as emotions roused by the pieces sung,” explains Pentikäinen.
While choir singing evidently holds some benefits, it’s also clear that you should avoid meeting up in person for choir practice until the ongoing pandemic is under control. Back in May 2020, a case study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that a single person in the US infected 52 other people with COVID-19 – two of whom later died – after meeting for choir practice. It’s thought that the superspreader event was made notably more severe due to the act of singing, which may have helped spread more virus-laden aerosols into the surrounding air.