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Have you been humming a catchy song to yourself and you can’t get it out of your head? Does the same song loop endlessly in your head for days or weeks at a time? New research suggests “stuck song syndrome” may be an early sign of dementia. In other words, the longer a song remains stuck in your memory, the higher your risk for dementia later on.

The phenomenon is scientifically referred to as an “earworm”, brainworm, or involuntary musical imagery. Earworms should not be confused with auditory hallucinations.

Earworms are normal and occur in healthy people who have no history of mental illness.

According to researcher James Kellaris, 98% of people experience “stuck song syndrome,” when a snippet of a song plays nonstop in the brain.

Researchers who have studied earworms concluded that earworms are evoked by strong emotional experiences that trigger the memory of a song (involuntary memory).

The song that is stuck in your head may be the last song you heard. It could be a catchy commercial jingle or a favorite tune from your childhood that brings back memories.

Kellaris says earworms occur in men and women, but earworms tend to last longer in women and annoy them more.

Songs with lyrics account for 73.7% of earworms.

Data published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2010 claims that earworms last 10 to 30 seconds in length and are more common in people with an interest in music.

New research suggests the longer a song remains stuck in our heads, the higher the risk of mental illness or dementia later on in life.

In one famous case, Jean Harris, who killed her lover of 14 years, Scarsdale Diet Dr. Herman Tarnower, compulsively and obsessively replayed the same song in her head for 33 years!

She reportedly “weaponized” the lyrics to “Put the Blame On Mame,” performed by Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film Gilda. Harris could hear the song in her head while holding a conversation simultaneously, and the song played continuously in her head throughout her wedding to James Harris.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

If you hear the same song stuck in your head for weeks, months or years, it may be time to book an appointment with your mental health provider. Other associated signs and symptoms that require medical attention are:

  • Suicidal thoughts (this is an emergency)
  • Depression
  • Tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in ears)
  • Song stuck for days or weeks that you can’t get rid of
  • Feeling powerless or hopeless
  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Ear pain
  • Talk to a friend about your obsessive song recall. According to Psyartjournal.com, “internal obsessive song recall … may be signaling the need for timely psychological intervention which the evoker may be unable to ask for.”

    This has been your Medical Minute.

    More Info On the Web

    Earworms: Why That Song Gets Stuck In Your Head | NPR

    Getting Rid of Earworms | HowStuffWorks

    Earworms | The Berkeley Science Review


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