Songs for the heart: Listening to instrumental music while driving eases cardiac stress

MARÍLIA, Brazil — Driving isn’t supposed to be stressful, but often times the unpredictability of the roads can make even the calmest of drivers’ blood start to boil. New research reveals a heart-healthy remedy may be right on your dashboard: the radio. Scientists say that music has a therapeutic effect when it comes to cardiac stress while we’re behind the wheel.

Rush hour gridlock, reckless fellow drivers, and unusually long traffic lights are just a few examples of common annoyances drivers encounter everyday. While these may seem like minor problems that usually resolve themselves rather quickly, in the moment these situations can put extra stress on our hearts. In fact, researchers say that persistent stress while driving is a noteworthy risk factor for the onset of cardiovascular disease, and even heart attacks.

If you find yourself agitated seemingly every time you’re behind the wheel, a new study conducted at São Paulo State University (UNESP) finds that listening to instrumental music in particular while driving may go a long way towards putting your heart at ease while you cruise the highways.

“We found that cardiac stress in the participants in our experiment was reduced by listening to music while they were driving,” comments professor Vitor Engrácia Valenti, the study’s lead investigator, in a release.

To come to these conclusions, five women between the ages of 18-23 were analyzed. All of the participants were generally healthy, semi-frequent drivers (one to two times per week), and had obtained their license at least one year prior to the study.

“We opted to assess women who were not habitual drivers because people who drive frequently and have had a license for a long time are better adapted to stressful situations in traffic,” Valenti continues.

The research team also had each participant drive in a car that was not their own, in order to add an extra element of uncertainty and stress to the experimental situation.

Each participant was tracked over the course of two days. The first day each woman drove without any music for 20 minutes during rush hour in a busy district of the Brazilian city of Marília. On the second day, the participants drove the same route at the same busy time of the day, but this time they listened to instrumental music using their cars’ CD players.

In order to gauge each driver’s level of cardiac stress, the research team attached heart monitors to the women’s chests while driving. These monitors recorded heart rate variability, defined as discrepancies in the time periods between consecutive heart beats. As an individual becomes more stressed, their sympathetic nervous system activates and their heart beats faster, actually reducing heart rate variability.

After analyzing their findings, the research team found that when the participants drove without music their heart rate variability decreased, a sign of elevated sympathetic nervous system activation and stress. Conversely, when the women had instrumental music playing in their car, their heart rate variability increased. This indicates a more relaxed state and lower levels of stress.

“Listening to music attenuated the moderate stress overload the volunteers experienced as they drove,” Valenti comments.

The study’s authors say they decided to only include women in this study because of the possible complications tied to sex hormones.

“If men, as well as women, had participated and we had found a significant difference between the two groups, female sex hormones might have been considered responsible,” Valenti adds.

The study is published in the scientific journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

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John Anderer

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