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Melding Music and Medicine


If I asked you what sort of music would best be paired with a health system, you might be at a bit of a loss. That’s okay. It’s not an easy question. My first thought? Elevator music. My second thought? Basically every song ever played in Scrubs.

Here’s the thing, though: Music plays a huge part of what we do at Penn Medicine. You just have to be on the lookout for it, is all. You’re not going to mistake our hallways for the stage anytime soon, but we utilize music around here in some subtle, entertaining, and/or wonderful ways—including a new study that’s a promising and creative new strategy aimed at reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Earlier this year, my colleague Greg Richter wrote a piece for this blog on what sort of music various Penn Medicine surgeons like to listen to while they operate. The quote in that post from Samir Mehta, MD—where he talks about letting his residents or operating room staff pick the music—may explain why I, when sitting in on and taking photos of a surgery he performed, was treated to what could have very easily passed for the soundtrack to my mother’s senior prom.

For the record, I love me some 80s music. Getting to take photographs of orthopaedic surgery while jamming to Simple Minds easily makes the highlight reel for my time here at Penn Medicine.

Greg also wrote another, more somber piece this year about Molly G. Hicks, MMT, MT-BC, a music therapist and bereavement counselor here at Penn Medicine who provides music therapy to hospice patients. In it, Hicks outlines just how music can be used to connect with patients and their families, who might otherwise be struggling with grief. Similarly, there’s this piece on the Philadelphia Threshold Singers and the work that they do with hospice patients and their families over at Penn Wissahickon Hospice at Rittenhouse.

“It doesn’t always have to be a medication to produce a reduction in anxiety or sleeplessness,” Volunteer Services manager Jeri A. Timm notes in that article.

Music, it seems, can help healer and healing alike. But it can also serve as more than just pleasant background noise or a measure of comfort: It can also serve as an active promoter of health and wellness.

Enter, REACT! (Exclamation point theirs, not mine, though I’m pretty excited about it as well). REACT! stands for Rhythm Experience and Africana Culture Trial, and it’s a collaborative study between the Penn Institute on Aging and the University of Pittsburgh’s Brain Aging and Cognitive Health Lab.

The idea is simple: If you stay active and engaged, you may stay healthy upstairs. In the study, a group of older African-Americans—a demographic twice as likely as Caucasians to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s disease—take instruction from a dance instructor, moving to the rhythms of African music. It helps keep the body healthy, which in turn may very well help to keep the mind healthy. Other aspects of the study include classes and mentally stimulating activities.

“Keeping the mind engaged and learning is a way to possibly reduce the risk of dementia,” Institute on Aging deputy director and Penn study leader Kathy Jedrziewski, PhD, told us earlier this year. “Exercise will most likely be a more impactful intervention, but I think the education group will have an effect as well, through learning, engaging, and socialization.”

There are many more examples, the most timely of which would be the Penn Medicine Symphony Orchestra, which will hold its first concert on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. in the Irvine Auditorium. A less timely but equally fascinating example would be the Penn Med Ultrasounds, a co-ed a cappella group from the Perelman School of Medicine that operated within our halls.

Just for starters, they do a pretty sweet version of Carry On My Wayward Son.

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