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Playing music throughout life linked to improved brain health in old age

‘Being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience,’ researchers say

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 29 January 2024 05:09 GMT
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Playing a musical instrument throughout life is linked with improved brain health in older age, according to a new study that may lead to better lifestyle recommendations for those at risk of disorders like dementia.

The research reviewed data from thousands of adults above the age of 40 to assess the effect of playing a musical instrument – or singing in a choir – on brain health.

More than 25,000 people signed up for the study, which has been running for 10 years, say researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK.

The participants’ musical experience and lifetime exposure to music were observed, alongside their results in cognitive tests, to determine whether musical ability helps keep the brain sharp in later life.

Researchers found that playing any musical instrument, but especially the piano, is linked to improved memory and the ability to solve complex tasks, also known as executive function.

Playing the instrument into later life provides even greater benefit, according to the study, published in International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

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While singing was also found linked to better brain health, researchers suspect this may also be due to the social factors of being part of a choir or group.

“A number of studies have looked at the effect of music on brain health. Our study has given us a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between cognitive performance and music in a large cohort of older adults,” dementia researcher Anne Corbett from the University of Exeter said.

“Overall, we think that being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience, known as cognitive reserve,” Dr Corbett said.

The latest findings, according to researchers, indicate that promoting musical education could be a valuable part of public health initiatives to promote a protective lifestyle for brain health.

Scientists say encouraging older adults to return to music in later life will also be beneficial for their brain health.

“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,” Dr Corbett said.

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