It's been said that music can soothe a savage breast, but perhaps it can also keep the heart inside that breast in tune. As Rose Hoban reports, some researchers have found that listening to enjoyable music can do your heart good.
Medical researchers have learned a lot about what causes people to develop heart disease. Stress, diets rich in fatty foods, and lack of exercise are among the top factors that increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. But scientists don't know as much about what can improve heart health.
Dr. Michael Miller from the University of Maryland has been bucking that trend by studying what makes hearts healthy. In the past, he's documented the positive effects that laughter has on the heart.
To study the effects of music on the heart, he used the same method he used in the laughter studies.
"We put a blood pressure cuff up on the upper arm, blow it up so we constrict the blood vessel," he says. "When we release that, we measure the degree to which the vessel expands.
"People that have risk factors for heart disease - for example, smoking and high blood pressure and diabetes - there tends not to be a normal response to this reaction."
Miller recruited 10 subjects and had them bring along music that they really enjoyed.
"In this group, we had a variation ranging from country music to rap to classical rock," he says. "It depends on you… You respond to music differently than your friends might."
Miller played the enjoyable music. Then, after each test, he removed the cuff and measured how well the person's blood vessels responded.
"Nine out of the 10 had very positive responses," Miller reports. "And one person was a little bit more neutral. Nobody had a negative response. So these were quite consistent findings."
Miller says the effects of listening to enjoyable music are comparable to those of taking some kinds of heart medications or doing exercise. But for the best response, he says you can't listen to the same song day after day.
"If you listen to the Beatles perhaps on a Monday of one week, then put it away for two weeks. Then listen to Chopin or… or on Wednesday, or whatever other music is stimulating to you, and put it away," he says.
"Because I do think that if you listen to the same music, it will desensitize you and desensitize that emotional effect."
Miller says listening to enjoyable music can't offset the effects of risks such as eating too much fatty food. But he does say music can be part of a heart-healthy lifestyle for anyone.
He presented his findings to a meeting of the American Heart Association last week.