group of seniors singing
Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's Patients: The Benefits of Singing

For people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, singing may provide benefits beyond improving respiratory and swallow control.

The results, from a pilot study by Iowa State researchers, showed improvements in patients’ mood and motor symptoms, as well as reduced physiological indicators of stress. Elizabeth Stegemöller, an assistant professor of kinesiology, cautioned that the data is preliminary, but says the improvements among singing participants are similar to benefits of taking medication. Stegemöller presented the work at the Society for Neuroscience 2018 conference.

Parkinson’s is a progressive nervous system disorder characterized by muscle tremors, which often start in the hand, and stiffness in movement.

“We see the improvement every week when they leave singing group. It’s almost like they have a little pep in their step. We know they’re feeling better and their mood is elevated,” Stegemöller said. “Some of the symptoms that are improving, such as finger tapping and the gait, don’t always readily respond to medication, but with singing they’re improving.”


Stegemöller, Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, an associate professor in human development family studies; and Andrew Zaman, a graduate student in kinesiology, measured heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”) levels for 17 participants in a therapeutic singing group. Participants also reported feelings of sadness, anxiety, happiness and anger. Data was collected prior to and following a one-hour singing session.

This is one of the first studies to look at how singing affects heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol in people with Parkinson’s disease. All three levels were reduced, a positive development, but Stegemöller says with the preliminary data the measures weren’t statistically significant. There were no significant differences in happiness or anger after class. However, participants were less anxious and sad.

Despite the encouraging results, researchers still have to solve the puzzle of what mechanism leads to these changes.

They are now analyzing blood samples to measure levels of oxytocin (a hormone related to bonding), changes in inflammation (an indicator of the progression of the disease) and neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to compensate for injury or disease) to determine if these factors can explain the benefits of singing.

“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,” Shirtcliff said. “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.”

The research builds upon the team’s previous findings that singing is an effective treatment to improve Parkinson’s patients’ respiratory control and the muscles used for swallowing. The prevalence of Parkinson’s disease is expected to double over the next 20 years. ISU researchers say therapeutic singing has the potential to provide an accessible and affordable treatment option to improve motor symptoms, stress and quality of life for Parkinson’s patients.

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