Study Finds That Singing Or Playing Music As You Age Linked To Better Brain Health

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Playing a musical instrument not only offers immediate rewards such as enjoyment and self-expression but could also have long-term cognitive benefits, according to findings from the PROTECT study.

Led by scientists investigating the impact of music on brain health, the PROTECT study analyzed data from over a thousand adults aged 40 and above. This online study, which has attracted over 25,000 participants over its decade-long duration, aimed to explore the relationship between musical activity and cognitive function among older individuals.

The results of the study revealed compelling evidence suggesting that engaging in musical activities, particularly playing instruments such as the piano, can enhance memory and cognitive speed in adults over 40.

Furthermore, continued musical engagement into later life was associated with even greater cognitive benefits. These findings shed light on the potential of music not only as a source of emotional well-being but also as a cognitive enhancer.

Specifically, playing a musical instrument was found to be linked to improved memory and executive function – the ability to solve complex tasks.

Additionally, participation in singing activities showed similar benefits, which researchers hypothesize may be attributed, at least in part, to the social aspects of group singing.

Professor of Dementia Research at the University of Exeter, Anne Corbett, said, “A number of studies have looked at the effect of music on brain health. 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.”

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“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,” she said in conclusion.

The positive impact of music on brain health extends beyond individual cognition, with considerable evidence supporting the benefits of group music activities for individuals with dementia. This suggests that incorporating music-based interventions into comprehensive healthy aging programs could be an effective strategy for promoting brain health and reducing cognitive decline in older adults.

Stuart Douglas, a 78-year-old accordion player from Cornwall, exemplifies the lifelong commitment to musical engagement. Having played the accordion throughout his life, Douglas continues to participate in musical groups, including the Cober Valley Accordion Band and the Cornish Division of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.

“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. These days I still play regularly, and playing in the band also keeps my calendar full, as we often perform in public,” said Mr. Douglas.

“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,” he added.

The initiative for the PROTECT study stemmed from Gaia Vetere, a University of Exeter Medicine student and passionate pianist. Vetere’s interest in the potential cognitive benefits of music prompted her to collaborate with the PROTECT study team.

“As a pianist, I was interested in researching the impact of music and cognition. Being fairly new to the world of research and publishing, this was a challenging but also truly enriching experience,” she told the University of Exeter press. 

You can find the paper published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.