Music: A Potent Weapon to Fight Autism, Stroke, Tinnitus and More

aaa  no_music__no_life_by_ristiiiOne month ago I wrote an article showcasing how music is beginning to be used as a tool in nursing homes and assisted living to greatly  help people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.  For those of you who missed it, the punchline to the essay involved a superlative documentary entitled  Alive Inside.   If you haven’t seen it and have even a tertiary interest in Alzheimer’s Disease, you’ll be extremely glad you gambled the time. Here’s the link.

If you don’t get Netflix, the whole documentary is free on You Tube.  Just type in Alive Inside.  By the way, of the hundreds of essays that have appeared on this site, that one won hands-down for responses….and what impressive responses we got!  Many of you really ran with the ball and you’re already helping friends and family.  Bravo and Brava!

Then a few days ago, I came across the March edition of Scientific American MIND.  What was their lead story?   The Healing Power of Music, by William Thompson and Gottfried Schlaug.  It’s better than good, yet at the same time, a bit frustrating, mostly because you want to read more.  It touches on several recent breakthroughs with music as the common thread.  An easy one to grapple with first:

aaa shootingTinnitus:  50,000,000 Americans are afflicted with the phantom sounds of tinnitus.  Having had it for over a decade I am well-versed on the subject.  Sharp, loud noises are usually the culprit and unfortunately it’s cumulative.  When I was a kid, my brother allowed me to shoot his Colt .357 magnum.  Sound suppressors?  Didn’t have them, and my ears rang badly for days and I could barely hear.

Later on in pilot training, everyone first checks-out in the Cessna T-37 affectionately called the Tweety Bird because its twin jet engines make a particularly piercing (and deafening) shriek when cranked up.  One minute without your “bunny ears” and you’ll pay the price.  I guess some of those rock concerts at F&M didn’t help matters either.  Now, I have a strong hiss in my right ear…all the time.  It never goes away.  Most of the “treatments” involve coming to terms with the malady so you don’t go bonkers.  I jokingly refer to it as my on-board white-sound machine.  William Shatner (Capt. James T. Kirk) has it as well and for some reason that’s comforting.

Right now, despite all the hopeful snake oil solutions out there, there is nothing that actually solves it or cures it.   I have an actual white sound device running right now (spring peepers) which helps, but one thing makes it go away temporarily… Music.  It’s not that the tinnitus is not there, it’s that your mind processes the music instead of the tinnitus.  It works.  It’s good.

aaa  strokeStroke:  In the Thompson/ Schlaug article, they focus on an 11-year-old girl named Laurel who suffered a stroke which had no definitive cause.  Blood was cut-off from the part of her brain that controls language and thereafter she could barely utter any words at all…….unless she sang them.  A reality she discovered accidentally.  Suddenly, by putting her words to music, she could re-route the thoughts in her mind to a simple little song she used.  It worked and continues to work reliably.  What’s best of all, this new pathway is beginning to allow her language skills to return.  You just might want to pin this information away if in the distant future if someone special to you…or you yourself suffer this malady.

aaa purple people eaterMusical Memory:  As a young adult it became increasingly apparent to me that the songs I’d learned as a child had stuck with me, words, melody, and all.  This has its pluses and its minuses.  I can still remember my first .45 record…something I actually paid money for.  It was The Purple People Eater.  Oooh, eee,  ooh ahh ahh.  Ting-tang, walla walla bing bang.  I would put the  paper bag of shame  over my head right now, but then I couldn’t type.  Fortunately, I also remember the words to thousands upon thousands of other songs…without ever once trying to memorize them.  Obviously something wonderful and highly useful is at hand.  Scientists are just now learning to harness it.  This is both an old, and a new and exciting field.  We have much to learn.

aaa autismAutism:  If it sounds as if Music is a magic bullet; perhaps for some types of brain connection disorders, it actually is just that.  Parents with severely autistic children can have an on-going private hell to go through, constantly trying to break through to that exclusive inner world the autistic child lives in.   Music, however, seems to be a bridge, not only for communication but for formulating and understanding emotions…an incredibly important task for autistic people.  The studies are many and they all work.

aaaanxiety_depression_may_raise_stroke_riskDepression:  I’m shooting from the hip, here, because I haven’t run into any studies correlating fighting depression with listening to a schedule of specific music. Candidly, I get my good share of depressions. It envelopes me in a dark cloudy mist shading everything from my vision to my mood to my ability to taste food.  Everything just sort of dims down.  When it happens, my solution of late is to hit the sheets and take a long nap.  Most of the time, that helps.

Last night, however, with the Bucks County weather promising us 20 below and worse with wind chills and wind gusts approaching 50 mph, Pamela and I got a pretty bad case of cabin fever…nothing to do outside and we were Netflixed-out.  Instead, I poured out two vodka martinis (your tastes will vary), pulled up two lounge chairs and used our iTunes list of 6000-plus cool songs to cherry-pick the very best of the best.  We take turns and it’s sort of a gentle competition.  A little hint:  driving beats and cheerful lyrics are pretty hard to beat.  Pamela and I went from, “What the hell is the meaning of life?” to  “No, no, it’s MY turn.  You just played  Lady Marmalade  twice!”  Works much, much better with two people.  At the end of the evening we’d had a pretty damned good time and, not to beat a dead horse, never thought once about tinnitus.

Age-Related Decline:  Sigh…  To quote Robbie Robertson (The Band), “Well…  It ain’t like it used to be,” and that was said with a twinkle in his eye.  Truth is, like old cars without a junkyard for parts near by, things just start wearing out:  Hips, joints, eyes, ears, sexy parts, and….our three or so pounds of aging spongy grey matter between our ears.  That starts wearing out, too.  Except…they are finding that one of the leading weapons in fighting-back against this decline is….  Care to guess?  Yes, music helps keep our minds sharp…  It’s not too late to buy a guitar, a sax, clarinet or keyboard.  You don’t have to be great, you just have to have fun in the process.  Annoying those around you is just an extra benny.  Seriously, it helps…immensely.

SEX:   In addition to sharp minds…put on a little Tony Bennett or Johnny Mathis…or maybe Nancy Wilson, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Bernadette Peters, and you may find that your boudoir takes on an exciting new energy.  God I Love Music!!!  Pamela and I both have iPads with extra speakers.  We know how to make a playlist and it occurs to me as I write, that in ten minutes I can come up with one entitled:  Music to…quack… to.

aaa  tony bennettTo sum up, think about your mom or your dad or some friend with one of the above afflictions.  Think about your wife or your husband….or maybe even yourself.  I bet you there’s a category you can find that’ll help make life a little sweeter.  For me?  I’m switching over right now to Tony Bennett.  The Shadow of Your Smile.  Better yet, call your mate in from the next room and invite him or her to a slow dance with Tony serenading you.  Neck-nibbling is a good starting place.  It’s better than sending a rose.



P.S.  Seriously getting to work on that playlist now.  Pamela wants to kick off with Bolero.  I’m sticking with Tony.

12 Responses to "Music: A Potent Weapon to Fight Autism, Stroke, Tinnitus and More"

  1. Debbie says:

    Thank you Henry.

  2. Henry Harvey says:

    Why your post resonated with me this morning: Mike’s Dad was Air Force and went on to be a corporate pilot after getting out of the service; he has a terrible hearing loss due to flying. Mike’s mother has been displaying signs of dementia but I have seen her light up the 2 times we’ve taken them to dinner where there is a piano bar and the guy at the keyboard is playing tunes from the 40s and 50s. Your post this morning hit two birds with one stone so of course I forwarded it to them. I haven’t had a chance to talk to them today, but I’ll bet they will start playing the stereo again after reading it.
    Sam A.

  3. Henry Harvey says:

    Hi Sam!
    Thanks for your reply. Both Pamela’s and my mom suffered dementia later in life and it was so damned sad…. For anyone reading this…Sam is a gal and the author of a very important book…important enough that we’ll be examining it in our next blog. Sometimes a book can save your ass. This one might.

  4. Anne Marie Torturo says:

    The older I get, the more music plays a part in my memories. When I hear a song from my youth, I can pin point exactly what year it came out, and what I was doing. The lyrics come back crystal clear, even songs I haven’t heard in fifty years.

    Music is not judge mental. It intensifies feelings. It can psyche you up, calm you down, make you reminisce or feel sad.
    I recently bought into Sirius radio, even though I said I would never pay for radio waves. But! I can set the programs for any type of music to fit my mood. The fifties, sixties, and seventies stations make me happy. The music is so up beat…no whining, no profanity, no downer stuff. It is truly an escape.
    And what memories they bring back.
    It’s amazing.
    Anne Marie

    • Henry Harvey says:

      It’s a cliche for an older generation to detest the music of the up-and-coming. But if you’re bored with it…what does that say? I feel like there are a couple of recent generations that got gypped. It’s supposed to be a whole LOT more fun, sexy, reactionary, melancholy..a whole bunch of things. It’s not supposed to be boring though. Thanks for your comments!

  5. Henry Harvey says:

    I don’t do blogs, but I sure look forward to reading your articles.
    So Blogger I am now!
    Pam F.

  6. Henry Harvey says:

    Hey Pam!
    Blog… just a word, a kind of tool for delivering information. Nothing more. Personally, I wish they’d come up with a better-sounding word. I used to savor Emerson’s essays and the word essay has always held more appeal…seemed more thoughtful. If you prefer, you’re an essayer.

  7. Henry Harvey says:

    I too have tinnitus, have not talked to a doctor as yet. It is irritating. I will put on my pandora now, maybe it will help.

  8. Henry Harvey says:

    The music really does help…a lot. Just don’t shoot yourself in the foot by turning it up too loud.

  9. Henry Harvey says:

    Hi Henry,

    It is truly amazing what wires into your head during those formative years when it’s still pretty plastic up in there. Unfortunately, I believe it speaks to how poorly our educational system takes advantage of kid’s capabilities to absorb information – and more importantly – deductive thought processes, during that golden window in time. It’s also interesting to note how many genius-caliber minds have musical facility or at least deep appreciation for music. Currently reading the ‘American Prometheus’ biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Though he hated piano lessons as a child, he deeply loved reading and composing poetry, which can be interpreted as an atonal, specialized musical form. His physicist brother, Frank, was a concert-caliber flutist.

    You have my empathy regarding your tinnitus affliction. Mine is the result of: 1) development of decent headphones during my formative years that allowed you to listen to the Stones, Creedence, Clapton, etc. at high volume without unduly annoying other household denizens and, 2) several years’ membership in a couple of rough but earnest garage bands. Oh, why didn’t we listen to those inevitable shouts to ‘Turn It Down!’? 😉

  10. Henry Harvey says:

    Because young men between the age of 13 and….45 suffer testosterone poisoning! Strangely, the only time I heard “Turn it Down!!!” was not in college but in the military, living off base and playing a song from Godspell…hardly a rock musical.

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