The study was conducted at 12 senior centers serving racially and ethnically diverse communities in and around San Francisco. Half of the centers were randomly selected for the choir program; the others served as a control group.
Ultimately, 208 people participated in the choirs and 182 in the control group. None of them had been singing regularly with other groups.
Overall, the average age was 71, and three-quarters of participants were women. Two-thirds reported being from minority racial or ethnic backgrounds. Forty-one per cent had been born outside the U.S., 20 per cent reported financial hardship, 25 per cent reported fair or poor health and 60 per cent had at least two chronic medical conditions.
Roughly one in four participants had depression, but no one who enrolled in the study had any cognitive problems, the authors report in the journal Innovation in Aging.
More than half of the patients in the choir group (55 per cent) had not previously sung in a choir as an adult, and more than half (56 per cent) rated their musical ability as poor or fair.
Each of the choirs met 23 times over the course of six months. Professional choir conductors led the sessions, which also included physical activities such as walking to different parts of the room to sing. More than 90 per cent of people in both groups stayed in the study for the whole six months.
At the end, there were no significant differences between the groups in the primary outcome measures of the study: scores on tests of cognitive function, lower body strength and overall psychosocial health.
There were, however, significant improvements in two components of the psychosocial evaluation among choir participants. People in this group were feeling less lonely, and they were more interested in life – that is, their responses to survey questions indicated they were more interested in things, got more things done, were doing more interesting things and felt more motivated.
Seniors in the control group, meanwhile, did not see a large change in their scores for loneliness at the end of the six months, and their interest in life declined slightly.
“Because music (and singing) is integral to most cultures and are relatively easy and low-cost to deliver in community settings, community choirs . . . have the potential to improve the well-being of a large number of older adults,” study leader Julene Johnson of the University of California, San Francisco.
Older adults who feel lonely are more likely to be at risk of declining motor functions, poor physical wellbeing and even death, studies have shown.
Johnson’s study adds to older research showing that music may give adults the opportunity to remain active and engaged.
Choirs can also be tailored according to the culture of the communities, making them accessible to diverse populations, she and her colleagues point out, and are a relatively cheap tool for improving health outcomes.
“Increasing evidence suggests that loneliness is linked to broad-based physical and psychological morbidity, and it may reduce longevity,” said Dawn Mackey of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who was not involved in the study.
“It’s encouraging that both arts-based and physical-activity based interventions may improve mental well-being for older adults and help them add quality to years,” she said.
Healthcare costs increased across both the groups during the study period, although the increase was smaller in the intervention group.
It remains to be seen whether healthcare costs over the long term could be saved by helping adults feel less lonely.
“It is certainly possible that reducing feelings of loneliness and increasing interest in life may eventually save healthcare costs in the long term, but we have to test that hypothesis,” Johnson said.