Groundbreaking UCSF study finds community choirs reduce loneliness and increase interest in life for older adults


Sylvia Sherman, Community Music Center, Program Director
415-647-6015 x172,

Groundbreaking UCSF study finds community choirs reduce loneliness and increase interest in life for older adults

  • Community of Voices Trial is a collaboration of UCSF, Community Music Center (CMC), and the SF Department of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS)
  • UCSF, CMC, and DAAS release Community of Voices Study Choir Program Manual about how to create community choirs for older adults

San Francisco, CA (November 9, 2018)—Community Music Center (CMC) keeps older adults singing throughout neighborhoods in San Francisco, serving nearly 400 adults every year. These community choirs were first developed out of the five-year Community of Voices (COV) trial led by UC San Francisco (UCSF) and in collaboration with CMC and the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS).

CMC began its work on the Community of Voices research study in 2012 that aimed to examine whether singing in a community choir is a cost-effective way to promote health and well-being among culturally diverse older adults. Community of Voices choirs were led by choir directors and accompanists from the Community Music Center. Music was culturally tailored for each choir, appropriate for older adults with various singing abilities, and challenging enough to facilitate growth and mastery over time.

The results of this study have just been released in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences study online Nov. 9, 2018. One important finding is that singing in a choir reduced loneliness and increased an interest in life.

“We hear from our older adult choir members all the time how singing in the choirs lifts their spirits, but it’s wonderful to get this confirmation from a research study about the impact of singing in a choir for older adults. We are grateful to UCSF and Julene Johnson for their work on this,” comments Julie Rulyak Steinberg, Executive Director, Community Music Center.

Overall, the UCSF researchers found that older adults who sang in a choir for six months experienced significant improvements in loneliness and interest in life. “Our current health and social systems are not prepared to help support our rapidly increasing population of older adults,” said lead author Julene Johnson, PhD, associate dean for research and professor in the UCSF School of Nursing. “For instance, there’s a high percentage who experience loneliness and social isolation, and depression also is relatively high. There’s a need to develop novel approaches to help older adults stay engaged in the community and also stay connected.”

A potential novel approach is to engage them in the arts, as they can be offered in the community, are relatively low cost to deliver, are engaging, and can be culturally tailored. One option is community choirs, as about 32.5 million U.S. adults regularly sing in choirs.

“The choir has made a big change in my life. The experience was wonderful with Community of Voices program, and I wanted to continue singing after the study ended. The choir has helped me with my breathing, with getting me out of the house and meeting new people – things that would not have happened without the choir”, says Isabel Heredia, who sings with the CMC Solera Singers of the Mission Neighborhood Center and the CMC 30th Street choirs.

Along with findings about the community choirs reducing loneliness and increasing interest in life, no substantial group differences occurred in the cognitive or physical outcomes or for health care costs.

“We were a little surprised not to see improvements in cognitive and physical function, especially because the literature, although small, suggested there should be improvements,” Johnson said. “However, our study is one of the first randomized controlled trials of a choir intervention, whereas the others were cross-sectional or did not randomly assign the participants.”

“More research is needed on how choirs improve well-being and the potential long-term health impacts,” said Johnson, who served on a 25-person panel of the National Institutes of Health and John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on music and the brain, with results published in March 2018 in Neuron. The National Institutes of Health have just released three new requests for proposals to support research on music and health.

Each of the 12 choirs created during the five-year COV study continues to sing, having transitioned out of the study and into CMC’s Older Adult Choir Program. CMC older adult choirs are in partnership with San Francisco neighborhood senior centers, are tuition free, and open to people 55 and older.

The choirs in the CMC Older Adult Choir Program are:

Along with the release of the Community of Voices Study (COV) results, a Community of Voices Study Choir Program Manual about how to create a community choir for older adults was also released. This manual, developed by UCSF, CMC, and DAAS, provides information about the key components of the choir program, including how to select choir directors and accompanists, choosing repertoire, running a rehearsal, vocal and physical warm-ups, the role of performances, vocal considerations for older adults, and sustaining a choir program.

Information on the CMC Older Adult Choir Program:

CMC 30th Street and Coro Solera Older Adult Choirs performance
Photo: Kelsey Ogden

CMC I.T. Bookman, Western Addition, Bayview Older Adult Choirs at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
Photo: Yerba Buena Gardens Festival/Alice Lin

CMC Aquatic Park Older Adult Choir at City Hall Lunch Concert
Photo: Eugenia Mann

Available interviews:
Julie Rulyak Steinberg, Executive Director, Community Music Center
Sylvia Sherman, Program Director, Community Music Center
María Cora, Older Adult Choir Coordinator, Community Music Center
Older Adult Choir members

Community of Voices Trial Funding: The study was supported by the National Institute of Aging (R01AG042526, P30AG15272) and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (UL1 TR000004) to UCSF. Anna Nápoles, PhD, MPH, of the National Institutes of Health, was partly supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Community of Voices article in Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences

Community of Voices Study Choir Program Manual

UCSF Press Release

About Community Music Center (CMC): CMC was founded in 1921, with the mission of making music accessible to all people, regardless of their financial status. CMC worked with Julene Johnson, principal investigator of the Community of Voices study, to develop and deliver the Community of Voices choir program. Each of the 12 choirs created for the study continues to sing, now as part of CMC’s Older Adult Choir Program which continues to grow. During 2017- 2018, CMC served over 2,700 students of all ages and levels and financial backgrounds and offered more than $2M in tuition assistance.