Playing a musical instrument isn’t just reserved for rock stars, maestros, or young children joining the school band; it’s also your secret weapon against age-related cognitive decline, a new large-scale study has revealed.
The results of the peer-reviewed British study, 10 years in the making, were published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
It entailed the analysis of the data of 1,000 people over age 40 enrolled in the 10-year PROTECT dementia study of 25,000 older adults.
The team compared participants’ interaction with music during their lifetime with cognitive test results to assess whether playing an instrument does in fact slow down the mental decline commonly seen in older adults.
Its key findings saw that improved memory and the ability to solve complex tasks are associated with the playing of an instrument.
Anne Corbett, an Exeter University professor of dementia research acknowledged that the study was not the first to investigate the impact of music on brain health, but said that the PROTECT data provided an unheard of opportunity to look at the link between cognitive performance and music in a large sample of older people.
“Overall, we think that being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience, known as cognitive reserve,” Corbett said.
“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 added.
The study used 78-year-old Stuart Douglas, a long time accordion player who still regularly plays his instrument well into retirement, as a case study.
“These days I still play regularly, and playing in the band also keeps my calendar full, as we often perform in public,” Douglas said.
“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.”
According to Dementia Australia, 421,000 Australians are currently living with dementia, and this number is expected to increase in the coming years. Many people fear cognitive impairment because it can significantly impact an individual’s life and those around them and is associated with a loss of hope and enjoyment.
In light of the immense evidence for the therapeutic benefits of “music-for-the-brain” type activities for those suffering with dementia, Corbett suggested the incorporation of music training as part of a healthy ageing package for older adults.
This would give them the opportunity to “proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”