November 12th, 2008
11:58 AM ET

Music of the heart

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

l love my iPod. From Etta James to Roy Rogers, my playlist is pretty diverse. Each song is part of who I am. And I guess I have a lot of parts, because I've loaded over 4,000 songs into that tiny device. I take it with me everywhere. On the train, in my car, on trips, I even have a port in different rooms of my home. There's just something about music that makes me feel good. Even on a very bad day, my tunes can calm my inner "savage breast."

So it was no surprise when I read, that researchers from the University of Maryland Medical Center had found that listening to your favorite music may be good for your cardiovascular system. That's right: Beyonce, Kenny Chesney and Joshua Bell could be good for your heart! Now before you replace your statins with an MP3 player and Yo Yo Ma, listen up. The study was tiny - only 10 people, but this is the same group of doctors that conducted the "laughter is good for your heart" study a few years ago. "We had previously demonstrated that positive emotions, such as laughter, were good for vascular health. So, a logical question was whether other emotions, such as those evoked by music, have a similar effect," says principal investigator Michael Miller, M.D., director of preventive cardiology at the UMM. "We knew that individual people would react differently to different types of music, so in this study, we enabled participants to select music based upon their likes and dislikes."

In the music study, participants listened to pieces they enjoyed and picked themselves. In another phase they tuned into music that made them anxious and in a further setting, they listed to music designed to relax them. After each session, a number of their larger blood vessels were scanned and measured through a special ultrasound device. Researchers were looking at the endothelium, or the lining of the blood vessels, and its response to the musical stimuli. By looking at these images doctors found that when participants listened to music they really enjoyed, the average blood vessel diameter increased by 26 percent compared to not listening to music at all. That's even better than relaxing music, which opened the vessels by 11 percent. And while listening to music that caused listeners anxiety, like heavy metal or rap, the blood vessels narrowed by 6 percent compared with music such as country, gospel, pop and rock and roll.

Could other types of music produce similar positive effects on blood vessels? It's possible, Miller said. "The answer, in my opinion, is how an individual is 'wired.' We're all wired differently, we all react differently. I enjoy country music, so I could appreciate why country music could cause that joyful response." Miller believes the physiological impact may also affect the activity of brain chemicals called endorphins. "The emotional component may be an endorphin-mediated effect," says Miller. "The active listening to music evokes such raw positive emotions likely in part due to the release of endorphins, part of that mind-heart connection that we yearn to learn so much more about.
“Needless to say, these results were music to my ears because they signal another preventive strategy that we may incorporate in our daily lives to promote heart health."

This morning the traffic was brutal and the train was packed. I forgot my briefcase and my computer was giving me problems. But it didn't matter. Because I just pushed the “PLAY” button and let Ella sing my cares away.

Do you believe music is good for your health? Tell us about it.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.