Playing a musical instrument or singing in a choir helps our brains to stay sharp in old age, a new study shows.
Scientists found that continuing to engage in music throughout our lives can improve brain health as we get older.
The study, from researchers at the University of Exeter, found that practicing instruments – especially the piano – is linked with improved memory and the ability to solve complex tasks.
As well as its social advantages, singing in a choir was also linked with better brain health.
The authors of the study, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, hope their results encourage the promotion of musical education as a public health initiative that could benefit both the young and the old.
The researchers used the online PROTECT study, which is open to anyone over the age of 40, to review data relating to more than a thousand adults to observe the effects of musicality on brain health.
A total of more than 25,000 people are signed up for the PROTECT study, which has already been running for more than a decade.
The researchers reviewed both participants’ musical experience and their lifetime exposure to music alongside the results of cognitive tests to determine whether musicality helps to keep the brain sharp in later life.
They found that playing a musical instrument, particularly the piano, is linked with improved memory and the ability to solve complex tasks known as ‘executive function’.
These functions include planning ahead and meeting goals, displaying self-control, following multiple-step directions even when interrupted and staying focused despite distractions.
The researchers also found that continuing to play instruments into later life provides even greater benefits to the brain.
The findings also suggest that singing is also linked to better brain health – although this may also be partially due to the social factors of being part of a choir or other singing group.
Anne Corbett, a Professor of Dementia Research at the University of Exeter, said the study’s positive results showed that being musical could be a useful method to keep our brains agile as we age.
She added that, given its demonstrably positive influence on the brain, musical education should be promoted as a public health initiative.
“A number of studies have looked at the effect of music on brain health,” Dr. Corbett said.
“Our PROTECT study has given us a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between cognitive performance and music in a large cohort of older adults.
“Overall, we think that being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience, known as cognitive reserve.
“Although more research is needed to investigate this relationship, our findings indicate that promoting musical education would be a valuable part of public health initiatives to promote a protective lifestyle for brain health, as would encouraging older adults to return to music in later life.
“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 healthy aging package for older adults to enable them to proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”
Stuart Douglas, a 78-year-old lifelong accordion player based in Cornwall who continues to play the instrument, says he and his fellow band members have ‘no doubt’ that keeping up their playing helps keep their brains sharp and healthy.
Douglas continues to play with the Cober Valley Accordion Band as well as the Cornish Division of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society at Memory Cafés – community-driven meets for dementia sufferers and their carers held across the UK.
“I learned 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,” the Scotsman explained.
“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.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”
Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.