Singing the praises of joining a choir

By Geoff Harris

It would hardly be breaking news if we told that you that lots of exercise, a good diet and going easy on alcohol can help with longevity, boosting physical and mental well-being as you get older.

But did you know that choir singing can also have really positive cognitive benefits?

Researchers have already established that playing a musical instrument can boost older people’s cognitive flexibility and be a good way of meeting people, but scientists from the University of Helsinki also assert that singing can be really good for ‘seniors’ too. But rather than singing in the shower or serenading the dog, the big benefits seem to come from singing in a choir.

People seem to have already figured this out for themselves, to an extent, as there are estimated to be 37 million choir singers in Europe, and participation in senior choirs is growing rapidly. Furthermore, citizens under lockdown in Italy, for example, took to communal singing as a way of lifting their mood during the first wave of the virus.

Choirs have been hit hard by the pandemic restrictions, but many can still practice (or even perform) via online platforms, and once lockdowns lift, it should be business as usual. Dementia sufferers have also been singing online, via Zoom.

So what specific benefits does choir singing bring for older people? Get ready for the science bit. “The coupling of singing-related brain processes (vocal-motor, auditory, linguistic, cognitive, emotional) with the social interaction and goal-directed learning (learning to sing and perform polyphonic song arrangements) elements makes choir singing a particularly promising activity for promoting cognitive reserve and psychological and social well-being in ageing,” explain the Helsinki researchers.

They delved further into this topic by setting up a three-year study, which compared regular choir singers with non-choir singers of the same age. Regular and more irregular choir singers were also compared.

“We found that choir singers experienced better general health and social integration compared to the control group,” the researchers reported. “Overall, this is in line with previous studies of older adults reporting that choir singing is associated with reduced loneliness, physical health, and interest in life.”

There was another interesting finding, too. Better social integration was seen only in choir singers who had more than 10 years of choir experience whereas better general health was seen only in the low activity choir singers who had started choir singing at older age and had less than 10 years choir experience.

Why would this be? According to the Helsinki researchers, “a potential explanation could be that for the high activity choir singer group, the long-standing choir activity and the personal relationships formed with the other choir members have become an integral part of their social life—a hobby that unites them and keeps them socially connected. In turn, for the low-activity choir singers, participation in the choir activity may be more motivated by an aim to maintain better health during ageing, as a part of a healthy and active lifestyle.”

So there you have it. If you think you’d like to give choir singing a go as an older person, chances are it will benefit you mentally, by getting the brain working as you learn musical pieces, and emotionally/socially by establishing regular social interaction with other members. Then there are the social events after the singing stops.

But… what if you can’t sing very well? Here’s what a major choir in Cheshire has to say on the subject, and it’s good news.

“You don’t have to be good at something already to start! If we had to be already excellent before we took up a hobby, then the reality is hardly anyone would ever try something new

When you join one of our choirs, the most important thing for us is that you’re ready to have fun and give it a go. No one is expecting you to walk in as a professional singer already.

We are all about working together to improve our voices and enjoy ourselves, so no matter how ‘bad’ you think you are at singing, you will improve.”

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, if you still feel singing is not for you, learning to play a musical instrument can be another great choice for older people. There are lots of online resources to help you do this – it’s great to end on such a positive ‘note!’

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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