GPs should be singing the praises of joining a choir to help lift the spirits of the lonely
GPs are being urged to encourage widows and divorcees to take up singing in choirs. The mental and physical benefits from singing in harmony make it an uplifting experience for anyone suffering from loneliness or unhappiness.
Until about five years ago I didn't know anyone who was in a choir. Now, every second person I know has joined one. Each and every one of them loves it and wouldn't miss practice for the world.
So, when my mother joined a choir recently I was delighted and hoped it would help lift her spirits. My father died 18 months ago and it hasn't been easy for her.
When I called her after her first choir practice she was on a high.
That night was the first time she had slept through since dad died.
She came home, went to bed and woke up with the birds singing.
"It must have some kind of therapeutic powers," she said.
It seems she was absolutely right and research supports her theory. A Swedish study - 'The Body's Musical Score' - found that singing in a choir had a calming effect on participants' heart rate.
"Singing regulates activity in the so-called vagus nerve, which is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others," musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff, who led the study, said.
"Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga. In other words, through song, we can exercise a certain control over mental states."
Singing has also been found to boost the immune system and help singers stay mentally alert as they have to learn lyrics and memorise tunes.
Over half of participants in choirs in Ireland are aged over 50 and many of them are widowed, separated or just lonely.
A large majority of them have noted that being in a choir has improved their confidence and their emotional well-being. Meeting new people and making new friends helps ward off feelings of isolation.
Dr Julene Johnson, of the Institute for Health & Aging at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), spent six months in Jyväskylä, Finland, as a Fulbright Scholar studying the relationship between community choirs and well-being of older adults in a country that supports lifelong involvement in music.
"During my stay, I was surprised to see how many community choirs there are in Finland, and that many people embrace choral singing as a lifelong hobby. My research in Finland confirmed that singing in a choir is one important factor for keeping older Finns healthy," she said.
A British research team led by University of Bath psychologist Nick Stewart carried out a study featuring 125 choral singers, 125 solo singers, and 125 team sport athletes.
The first finding was that choral singers and team sports players "reported significantly higher levels of well-being than solo singers."
Second, they found choral singers experienced a greater sense of being part of a meaningful, or 'real' group, than team sport players.
The 2011 Census indicated that there are now 392,000 one-person households in Ireland. That is a lot of people in need of company and a social outlet.
Social isolation increases the risk of dementia, while more active lifestyles have been shown to protect against a host of diseases and the advance of frailty.
It's not just choirs that GPs should be recommending either. For those who don't like singing, they can choose dancing and swimming clubs or even volunteering and helping children with reading in schools.
All of these activities have been singled out as hobbies which could prevent isolation.
The chief executive of the Association of Irish Choirs, Dermot O'Callaghan, said older members often comment that their self-esteem increases and their emotional and physical well-being is enhanced when they are involved in choral activity.
"Singing is good for mental, emotional and physical health," he said.
"Some of the obvious direct results of singing are elevated mood, improved memory and increased concentration.
"Stress and anxiety have also been proven to be significantly reduced after singing."
The Voices of Limerick beautifully sums up the benefits of joining its choir: "Make friends with 70 other singers instantly and enjoy the camaraderie. Keep your brain active. Learn to sing beautiful music choruses and songs. Enjoy a carefree evening in pleasant company."
If one night of singing in a choir can allow my widowed mother her first full night's sleep in 18 months, then as far as I'm concerned, it's miraculous.
If you are looking for a New Year's resolution, my suggestion is to start singing!