Perspective from Sharon A Brangman, MD
Disclosures: The study was funded by the Academy of Finland and European Research Council.
February 17, 2021
4 min read

Choir singing may improve cognitive function in older adults

Perspective from Sharon A Brangman, MD
Disclosures: The study was funded by the Academy of Finland and European Research Council.
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Choir singing improves verbal flexibility, a domain of executive function and cognition, in older adults, according to research published in PLOS ONE.

“Playing a musical instrument has been shown to be connected to better cognitive functioning in several areas of cognition, for example cognitive flexibility, attention and memory,” Emmi Pentikäinen, a doctoral student at the in the Cognitive Brain Research Unit and the Music, Aging and Rehabilitation Team at the University of Helsinki, Finland, told Healio Primary Care. “There is now evidence that choir singing could perhaps lead to better cognitive flexibility.”

Quote on choir singing and cognitive flexibility

Pentikäinen and colleagues conducted a cross-sectional questionnaire study, with participants recruited through flyers, presentations and e-mail advertisements. The study included a main cohort study of 162 participants and a sub-cohort study that included a randomly selected sample of 74 participants who underwent neuropsychological tests.

Those included in the study sample were aged 60 years and older and did not have neurological or psychiatric disorders.

Among all participants, 106 were choir singers who had been singing in a choir for at least 1 year, and 56 participants were controls who had not sung in a choir during the last 10 years.

For the study, the researchers defined choir singing as regularly participating in a choir led by a professional conductor that rehearsed at least once a week and performed at least twice a year. Participants were considered high-activity choir singers if they had started earlier in life and sung in choirs for more than 10 years. Those who participated in choirs for fewer than 10 years were considered low-activity choir singers.

All participants completed six questionnaires to measure their cognitive function, depression, social well-being, quality of life, and how music affects their everyday life. Those randomly selected for neuropsychological testing also underwent 1.5 hours of testing from trained psychologist to evaluate their general cognition, executive functions, processing speed, working and episodic memory and verbal skills.

According to the researchers, high-activity choir singers were older, on average, compared with low-activity choir singers.

The researchers found that choir singers had significantly higher verbal flexibility than controls.

Additionally, they determined that there were significant differences between groups in Social Integration Scale of the Social Provisions Scale, general health based on the WHO Quality of Life questionnaire, and music engagement questionnaire scores.

When comparing low- and high-activity groups with controls, Pentikäinen and colleagues found that social integration scores were higher in high-activity choir singers compared with low-activity singers and controls, and that there was no significant difference between low-activity singers and control participants.

However, WHO quality of life scores for general health were higher among low-activity choir singers compared with high-activity singers and controls.

According to the researchers, music engagement scores were higher in both choir singer groups compared with controls, but there were not significant differences in scores between the choir singer groups.

“In our study, we noticed that choir singers had better verbal flexibility than controls, but the groups did not differ in any other cognitive measures,” Pentikäinen said. “Thus, more research, and especially longitudinal approaches, are needed to establish the possible cognitive benefits of choir singing.”