If music be the food of love ... then it also lowers cholesterol
Take a tune and come back to see me in the morning. Doctors have found that prescribing music can improve heart health and lower cholesterol levels.
Their research found that if a patient listens to 30 minutes a day of their favourite music, it does more than relaxing them mentally – it also benefits them physically by expanding and clearing blood vessels.
Doctors have tried the method on some patients in America and it has been welcomed by British experts. It is believed to work by triggering the release into the bloodstream of nitric oxide, which helps to prevent the build-up of blood clots and harmful cholesterol.
The findings are part of a growing body of research into the effects of music on the human body. Scientists have found that songs by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna can improve endurance, while 18th-century symphonies can improve mental focus.
When it comes to the effect on the bloodstream, however, the key is not the type of music but what the listener prefers. The same is true of volume and tempo.
“The music effect lasts in the bloodstream for only a few seconds but the accumulative benefit of favourite tunes lasts and can be very positive in people of all ages,” said Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at Maryland University, who carried out the research.
He added: “We were looking for cheaper, nonpharmacological aids to help us improve our patients’ heart health and we think this is the prescription.”
The Maryland study, based on healthy nonsmoking men and women with an average age of 36, found the diameter of blood vessels in the upper arm expanded by 26% in volunteers listening to music they found enjoyable.
Miller said blood vessel expansion indicated that nitric oxide was being released throughout the body, reducing clots and LDL, a form of cholesterol linked to heart attacks.
He also warned that listening to stressful music, which for many in the experiments included heavy metal and rap, can shrink blood vessels by 6% – the same effect, according to previous experiments, as eating a large hamburger.
Miller also advised parents to avoid listening to their teenage children’s music if it upset them because it could be the aural equivalent of passive smoking. “I like Merseybeat-era Beatles and Julia from their White Album and you cannot get two more different types of song, but I think both work for my heart,” he said.
His findings follow a study by Brunel University, in west London, which confirmed what gym owners have known for years – that music can improve mood and boost athletic performance.
In experiments on 30 volunteers, Costas Karageorghis, the researcher, found that tracks from Madonna and Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as Queen and Rihanna, the R&B singer, increased endurance on a treadmill by up to 15%. Most participants did not realise they were working harder.
Music may “pump” the brain as well as the body. At Stanford University, near San Francisco, researchers found that listening to 18th-century symphonies helped to improve listeners’ focus between movements, when they mentally updated shopping lists.
Chris McCallum-Banks, 29, a financial consultant from London, said he found music essential in his training for next year’s New York marathon: “I’ve noticed a real change on training days when I forget my MP3 player, especially on the cardio-intensive exercises.
“When you hit the ‘wall’, having the right tune playing can be the difference between breaking through it and giving up.”
On that happy note
Music can relax the listener – or have the opposite effect
— Motivate yourself with positive-sounding artists such as Rihanna, Queen or Red Hot Chili Peppers
— Ozzy Osbourne and MIA are likely to make you feel more stressed
— Calm down with Mozart or Miles Davis
— Improve mental focus with the symphonies of Bach or more modern music by Philip Glass