Choral Singing Boosts Immune System Activity

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A study of cancer patients, and the people who care for them, finds a mere hour of joining others in song produces positive physiological results.

By Tom Jacobs

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The Choristers of Westminster Abbey rehearse for Christmas services on December 20, 2007, in London, England. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Are you coping with cancer, either as a patient or a caregiver? If so, you’re almost certainly under a tremendous amount of emotional stress — a state that has been shown to weaken the immune system, which is the last thing you want.

Your inclination may be to stay home and nurse your troubles in private. But newly published research points to a far better choice: Head out to choir practice.

A British study of cancer patients and caregivers found a mere 70 minutes of singing not only lifted people’s moods, but also produced positive changes in their immune systems.

“We have been building a body of evidence over the past six years to show that singing in a choir can have a range of social, emotional, and psychological benefits,” says co-author Dr. Ian Lewis, director of research and policy at Tenovus Cancer Care. “Now we can see it has biological effects too.”

The research team was led by Daisy Fancourt of the Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science. She’s the lead author of another recently published paper that provided evidence of the immunity-boosting power of group drumming.

Choral singing can be an effective mood enhancer that helps to strengthen the body’s natural defenses.

This study, published in the open-access journal ecancermedicalscience, featured 55 patients whose cancers were in remission; 72 people currently caring for cancer patients; and 66 people who were caregivers to a now-deceased cancer patient. All 193 were members of one of five choirs in South Wales.

Before and after a single, 70-minute-long choir rehearsal (which included warm-up exercises, learning new material, and singing songs already in the group’s repertoire), participants filled out questionnaires designed to measure their mood and state of well-being. They also provided samples of their saliva for laboratory testing.

“Aggregate mood was found to improve across the choir session, and aggregate stress was found to decrease,” the researchers report. In tandem with this, saliva samples revealed the rehearsal produced a decrease in the stress-induced hormone cortisol, and “a generalized down-regulation of stress response.”

“This is the first time it’s been demonstrated that the immune system can be effected by singing,” Lewis said in a media release.

What’s more, the impact appears to be greatest among those who need it most.

“Among both patients and care-givers, those with the lowest levels of mental well-being and highest levels of depression experienced the greatest short-term improvement in mood across the singing session,” the researchers add. “These larger mood changes were associated with lower levels of inflammation.”

This was a preliminary study, and limited to people who already sang in choirs. Whether taking up the practice has the same impact remains to be studied.

Nevertheless, it suggests that, for those who love it, choral singing can be an effective mood enhancer that helps to strengthen the body’s natural defenses. And that news should surely inspire a chorus of Ode to Joy.

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