Not that you needed another reason to sing good hymns, but here it is anyway:
It is well known that music assists in learning. When teaching the catechism to children, for instance, teaching it to music greatly increases the ability for memorization. Music is a stimulus that uses the whole brain, and a strong bond between the music and words is formed. Music also makes learning more fun. It increases attention and improves memory.
Now, there is more good news. In a study that is yet to be published, Professor Michael Thaut, director of the Music and Health Research Collaboratory at the University of Toronto, explains observations that musical memories and the associated information connected to the music are usually longer preserved in patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia than all other types of memories.
Brain imaging research techniques showed that in cognitively-impaired patients much more of the brain is activated with familiar music that has meaning for the patient than with new or unfamiliar music (or, of course, the spoken word). The network that is activated with long-term musical memory is a network that spreads across the whole brain. On the other hand, a more recent musical memory only has a small, pointed network that is activated.
I have witnessed patients with dementia, who otherwise do not appear to remember or respond to much, seemingly wake up and even start to mouth the words of favorite hymns or parts of the liturgy as I sing them. The liturgy and hymns are long-term, musical memories from decades of repetition which are ideal for triggering not just memory of the music but of the ever-important words themselves.
Music also helps slow down the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and familiar hymns can even enhance connectivity between brain regions.
What a great reason to sing our liturgy and a great reason to continue singing good, Lutheran hymns filled with the promises of God and His sure and certain comfort. Sing them now and for decades to come, and they will be the longest preserved memories you have. Also, choose the hymns wisely for the same reason.
And next time you visit a friend, family member, or church member with dementia or Alzheimer’s, bring your hymnal and sing from the treasury of Gospel-filled hymns with which God has blessed us.
*While Professor Thaut has not published his research as of yet, he was interviewed on CBC’s radio show White Coat Black Art (my first time hearing the program), which is the source of the research cited.