We speak with Dr. Julene Johnson in this week’s Coping to Care, highlighting music and how it assists with brain health. The arts for senior health is highlighted with Dr. Johnson’s in-depth experiences and research relating to music for cognitive functioning, as well as how to assist seniors facing Alzheimer’s and dementia.

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About Dr. Johnson, Cognitive Neuroscientist

Dr. Julene Johnson is a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and was named one of the top 50 influencers in aging by UCSF. She is an Associate Director Professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of San Francisco (UCSF) and Director of the Sound Health Network, which aims to provide an infrastructure for music & health. She is also an Associate Dean of Research for the School of Nursing. She completed her post-doctorate at the University of California Irvine, highlighting forward-thinking approaches for brain aging and dementia.

The work provided by Dr. Johnson is also inclusive of her work and research for AARP, as well as through programs such as the Fullbright Scholarship, which she was awarded in 2010 in Finland to study the effectiveness of singing for the aging population and also is inclusive of intervention programs relating to aging and cognitive health.

Dr. Johnson is interested in continuing research around the themes of cost-effective, community-based interventions (e.g. the arts) to promote health and well-being. She is also interested in understanding cognitive function among older adults, highlighting that well-being, lifestyle, and intervention programs are intertwined in relation to complete health.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Johnson.

Exploring Music and Cognitive Health Among Seniors

A recent study from AARP highlights that music is a health intervention to assist in aging among older adults, specifically those who are facing Alzheimer’s and dementia. It is also noted that this improves one’s quality of life and well-being.

Dr. Johnson states that music is a way to engage our brains as well as a way to stay connected with others. Whether singing or playing an instrument or dancing, it involves several parts of your brain. When playing and engaging in music, it improves the quality of life, reduces stress, improves social connections, and assists to recall memories among others.

Why Singing Is Good For Your Health

Dr. Johnson recently completed a study where she looked at singing in communities and the impact this had on brain health. The community choir promoted health and well-being for seniors.

After 6 months, older adults who sang in the choir had less loneliness and more interest in life.

Engaging in different types of music, such as with a choir, promotes well-being.

Dr. Johnson also noted that the rhythm in music is also able to assist with impaired movement.

Music becomes useful in motivating movement and creates an external cue through a “groove” that creates natural movement. This stimulates the motor-sensory response and motivation to move. Dance and other physical activity are also able to support this brain functioning when examining arts for senior health.

Treating Dementia and Alzheimer’s With Music

There are often behavioral symptoms that are associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Dr. Johnson highlighted that there are several areas of research that state that engaging and listening to music helps to reduce some of the behaviors. Agitation, wandering, anxiety, etc are reduced from music.

The memory for music is also preserved when someone is living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Even though someone may have severe symptoms, they are still able to engage in music and act as a trigger for memories. In turn, this will soothe them and help them to remain grounded and comfortable.

AARP’s 8 Practical Tips for Music

1. Bring Music Into Your Life and Share It With Others. By sharing music, it helps to improve the quality of life and connects you to others. Sharing music as a part of the culture and when focusing on arts for senior health, it creates meaning, joy, and connection.

2. Use Music for Stimulation. Dancing, singing, moving to music engages physically, reduces stress, encourages social connections, and stimulates your brain.

3. Listen to Familiar Music that Comforts You and Invokes Positive Associations. Dr. Johnson highlighted that this was especially important now for comfort. Old CDs, the radio, or even YouTube that are familiar offer comfort and assists with positive memories and supports the arts for senior health.

4. Find New Music. Expanding your mind and hearing new music and melodies also stimulates your brain to think in new ways. This may be as simple as listening to a new radio station with a new style of music or looking for contemporary music. She indicated that speaking with younger individuals about what they listen to and having conversations about this can help with brain health.

5. Music to Encourage Exercise. Music provides an extra boost or motivation to move your body. An exercise that is done with groups or with music, such as physical activity with music creates more motivation.

6. Correcting Hearing Loss. Many researchers highlight that hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia or Alzheimer’s. This stimulates hearing and provides a guide to correct hearing issues.

7. Make Music By Yourself. Whether it is playing your own instrument or playing in the shower, making music by yourself can assist your brain health. This can be as easy as picking up a drum or something which doesn’t require talent or practice but promotes arts for senior health.

8. Make Music with Others. Join a choir, perform with a choir, think about getting together with others to play musical instruments. You can start by practicing individually and working virtually with others or by waiting until things open to get with the community and be together.

Inspiring Art for Seniors Health

Dr. Johnson finds her continuous inspiration by believing it is important to find new ways every day to unleash your creativity.

She also stated that it’s never too late to start. Dr. Johnson highlights that many believe they can’t start now because of the stigma of starting music when they are young. However, those that do learn when they are older are able to find joy and stimulation later in life. Letting go of negative thoughts and trying is something that can be fun and healthy.

This is similar to Art to Wellness® and seniors finding new ways to stimulate brain activity and work with something new. This brings together the community as well as highlighting the importance of arts for cognitive health.

Click here to learn more about Art to Wellness®.

A Piece of J.S. Bach for Solace and Comfort

Dr. Johnson leaves us with a piece that she has been playing during the pandemic, specifically to help her find calm and peace. This is a piece she also played during her Undergraduate for the same reasons. Enjoy her short excerpt of a Sonata for Flute by J.S. Bach.