How Singing Therapy May Reduce Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease of the nervous system marked by tremor, muscular rigidity, and slow movement. Onset of the disease usually starts after age 60, and there is no cure for the disease.

Currently, we treat Parkinson’s disease by managing symptoms. The available drugs can help reduce tremors, muscle stiffness, and slow movements. Patients of Parkinson’s disease can also benefit from the various therapies—physical, occupational, and speech—based on how the disease affects them.

New Study: Singing for Symptom Management

Seniors with parkinson's disease participating in therapeutic group singing session

Screen grab from a video of a therapeutic singing session led by Elizabeth Stegemöller

In a pilot study released early last month, Elizabeth Stegemöller of Iowa State University posits that singing can provide exponential benefits to seniors with Parkinson’s disease.

Stegemöller’s previous research indicated that group singing can improve respiratory control in people with the disease. This is because singing requires better muscle control in the mouth and throat, which strengthens the muscles in those areas.

This new study focused on a therapeutic singing group consisting of less than 20 people with Parkinson’s disease. Before and after each singing session, the researchers measured their vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. The participants also completed a questionnaire that rated things like their happiness, anxiety, and anger levels.

Promising Results

While the study sample was small and this is just preliminary data, the results show a noted drop in anxiety and sadness after each session. Other statistically significant improvements involve:

  • Upper extremity bradykinesia (slowness of movement)
  • Tremor
  • Walking ability

These are motor symptoms that sometimes see no improvement with medication, so these results are especially promising for seniors who don’t find relief with Parkinson’s drugs.

The exact reasons singing is so beneficial are unclear, but Stegemöller and her team are delving into that question now. One of the factors they’re looking at is oxytocin—the so-called love hormone. Oxytocin is released during bonding activities, which group singing facilitates.

Says Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, another researcher on the team:

“Part of the reason cortisol is going down could be because the singing participants feel positive and less stress in the act of singing with others in the group. This suggests we can look at the bonding hormone, oxytocin.

“We’re also looking at heart rate and heart rate variability, which can tell us how calm and physiologically relaxed the individual is after singing.”

Whatever the exact physiological cause of the improvements, we at Regency Nursing hope to see more studies done on larger samples, to show definitively whether group singing should be added to the list of clinical interventions for Parkinson’s disease.

In the meantime, we’ve already unknowingly incorporated singing therapy into our range of activities, by bringing in talented musicians to entertain our residents. When we sing together as a group, we all feel the difference.

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