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Music that touches the heart -- vessels, that is

November 11, 2008 |  3:00 pm

Music1Pop in those ear buds. Listening to music that makes you feel good expands blood vessels and increases blood flow, improving heart function, say the authors of a study presented today at the annual meeting of the American Heart Assn. in New Orleans. The researchers found that when volunteers listened to music they perceived as stressful, however, their blood vessels narrowed.

"We had previously demonstrated that positive emotions, such as laughter, were good for vascular health," said the lead author of the study, Dr. Michael Miller, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "So, a logical question was whether other emotions, such as those evoked by music, have a similar effect. 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."

Ten healthy volunteers were asked to listen to music they enjoyed after avoiding the music for a minimum of two weeks before the study. They were also asked to listen to music that made them feel anxious, and to audiotapes designed to promote relaxation, and to watch videos designed to induce laughter. Over the course of several weeks, the volunteers underwent tests to measure blood flow before and after the exposure to the music, relaxation tapes or humorous videos. Compared with the blood flow measurement taken before exposure, blood vessel diameter in the upper arm increased 26% after the joyful music and narrowed 6% after listening to music that caused anxiety. Laughter provoked a 19% increase in dilation and the relaxation audiotape, 11%.

Most of the volunteers selected country music as their favorite to invoke joy, and heavy metal to make them feel anxious. But the type of music selected to provoke various feelings is highly individualized, Miller said. He believes emotional response to the rhythm, harmony and melody of music activates brain chemicals, called endorphins, that may in turn affect blood vessel function.

"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 health."

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Ian Waldie/Getty Images