New research shows that singing in a community choir reduces loneliness and increases interest in life for older adults.
However, participation in the choir did not improve cognition or physical function, according to researchers at the University of California San Francisco.
The research came out of the program Community of Voices, a collaboration between UCSF and the non-profit San Francisco Community Music Center (CMC), as well as the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS). The study’s aim was to assess whether art-based social interventions could improve quality of life for older adults, the researchers said.
“Our current health and social systems are not prepared to help support our rapidly increasing population of older adults,” said lead author Julene Johnson, Ph.D., associate dean for research and a professor in the UCSF School of Nursing. “There’s a high percentage who experience loneliness and social isolation, and depression also is relatively high. There’s a need to develop novel approaches to help older adults stay engaged in the community and also stay connected.”
The nearly 50 million Americans aged 65 and older represented 15.2 percent of the total U.S. population in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Researchers note that previous studies have shown that social isolation and depression can exacerbate poor health for older adults.
A potential new approach is to engage them in the arts, as they can be offered in the community, are relatively low cost to deliver, are engaging, and can be culturally tailored, the researchers said. One option is community choirs, as about 32.5 million U.S. adults regularly sing in choirs.
For the study, 12 federally supported senior centers in San Francisco were randomized into a weekly group choir program designed to engage adults age 60 and older cognitively, physically, and socially.
Over a three-year period from February 2012 to August 2015, 390 English- and Spanish-speaking participants were enrolled into either a group that started choirs immediately (208 members), or another group that initiated choirs six months later (182 members). Two-thirds of the participants were from diverse backgrounds, 20 percent reported financial hardship, and 60 percent had two or more chronic medical conditions, the researchers noted.
The Community of Voices choirs were led by professional choir directors and accompanists. They identified music repertoire that was culturally tailored for each site, appropriate for older adults with various singing abilities, and challenging enough to facilitate growth and mastery over time, according to the researchers. The 90-minute choir sessions included informal public performances.
During the study, singers completed memory, coordination, and balance tests, and completed questionnaires about their emotional well-being. Researchers assessed outcomes at six months, along with the health care costs.
Overall, the researchers found that older adults who sang in a choir for six months experienced significant improvements in loneliness and interest in life. However, no substantial group differences occurred in the cognitive or physical outcomes or for health care costs, the researchers reported.
“We were a little surprised not to see improvements in cognitive and physical function, especially because the literature, although small, suggested there should be improvements,” Johnson said.
“However, our study is one of the first randomized controlled trials of a choir intervention, whereas the others were cross-sectional or did not randomly assign the participants.”
More research is needed on how choirs improve well-being and the potential long-term health impacts, said Johnson.
“Besides being one of the first arts-based randomized trials for older adults, our trial represents a new direction in translational research designed to address health disparities, in which interventions are designed and evaluated in community settings from the outset,” Johnson said. “These study methods can be a model for future trials to engage and retain diverse older adults in research.”
The study was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.