Do You Enjoy Making Music? It May Be Keeping Your Brain Sharp As You Age

Music can be beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients, even as the disease progresses. It’s been found to help reduce agitation and behavioral health issues, be recognizable even to patients in the advanced stages, and to help with connection as memory and speaking ability fade. A new study finds it may also protect our brains from such conditions as we age.

Researchers from the University of Exeter recently examined the link between cognitive health and playing an instrument or singing in a choir. This was part of their broader PROTECT-UK study, which has been tracking long-term cognitive health of people over 40 to better understand why dementia develops and how it may be prevented.

Closeup of hands playing violin

In this sub-study, recently published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, more than 1,000 participants completed a questionnaire on their lifetime musical experience. The research showed that those who had played an instrument, particularly piano, had better working memory and executive function. Executive function encompasses skills that help people learn, work, solve tasks, and control their emotions and behaviors. These benefits were especially strong for people who played their instruments into older age.

Meanwhile, those who sang in a choir also demonstrated better executive function, though researchers say that could have to do with the social aspect, as well. An active social life is another factor also linked with a lower risk of dementia. Overall musical ability and working memory were found to be linked, too.

The researchers say further study is needed, but their findings suggest that lifelong musical education and engagement may help protect brain health.

Pianist with piano

The study authors write, “Public health interventions to promote healthy ageing and dementia risk reduction should consider including advice for adults on engaging with music. In particular, adults may be encouraged to take part in community music or singing groups or to re-engage with an instrument they have played in former years. There is considerable evidence for the benefit of music group activities for individuals with dementia, and this approach could be extended as part of a health ageing package for healthy older adults to enable them to proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”

In a news release from the University of Exeter about the study, the story of a long-term musician was also shared, which demonstrated both the benefits for him and for people with memory issues who watch him play.

The release notes that 78-year-old Cornish accordion player Stuart Douglas is a lifelong musician who still plays with two musical groups.

He says, “I learnt to play the accordion as a boy living in a mining village in Fife and carried on throughout my career in the police force and beyond. These days I still play regularly, and playing in the band also keeps my calendar full, as we often perform in public. We regularly play at memory cafes so have seen the effect that our music has on people with memory loss, and as older musicians ourselves we have no doubt that continuing with music into older age has played an important role in keeping our brains healthy.”

Woman plays jazz flute

The Alzheimer’s Association says that if you want to use music to connect with a dementia patient, focusing on familiar tunes without commercials can be beneficial. Encouraging dancing along to the music can enhance the experience, but be sure to avoid sensory overload, which can be distressing to the patient.

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