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According to recent research, playing an instrument may help protect your brain health as you age. Image credit: VICTOR TORRES/Stocksy.
  • Playing an instrument throughout your life can promote cognitive health in your later years, finds a new study.
  • Although playing woodwinds and brass were also found to be cognitively beneficial, people who play piano through adulthood are the most likely to receive the greatest benefit.
  • The study also found a link between singing in a choir and cognitive health, though it was unable to determine if this is the result of singing itself, or of participating in a social activity.

Playing music or choral singing throughout one’s adult life is associated with better cognitive health as we age, says a new study from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

The study is an analysis of data from the larger PROTECT study, looking at people aged 40 or older. It is a collaboration with King’s College London, and has been underway for a decade.

Going through data from a subset of the PROTECT study, the authors of the new study tracked the cognitive effects of playing an instrument, or choral singing. Individuals’ lifelong exposure to music and their musical experience were compared to their cognitive function.

The study is published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

The authors of the study found that adults who play an instrument are more likely to have a stronger working memory and executive function. Singing in a choir was also associated with better executive function.

A higher level of overall musical ability was linked to a stronger working memory.

While simply listening to music is known to be helpful for older people, the study underscored the additional benefit of participating in music, as this involves more areas of the brain. It observed no link between listening to music passively and cognitive health.

People whose playing continued as they grew older were more likely to have even stronger cognitive health.

Most of the study participants had played for a limited number of years, typically 5 years or less, and slightly over three-quarters had received 2 to 5 years of instruction. Individuals reported practicing 2–3 hours a week or less during their active musical years.

The instrument most significantly linked to better cognitive health was the piano.

Players of woodwinds and brass also exhibited higher cognitive scores, though not as high as pianists. The study found no association between cognition and playing percussion, bowed instruments, and guitar.

While the researchers did observe positive effects from choral singing, it is unclear if this is an effect simply of singing or if socializing with others also adds to its cognitive value, and the authors say further research is needed.

The study’s findings underscore the potential value of musical education at a time when many school music programs are being eliminated. It also promotes the idea that engagement in musical activities throughout adulthood is a way to protectively harness one’s cognitive reserve.

Dr. Jennie Dorris is a research scientist and at the University of Pittsburgh, and a percussionist, and was not involved in the study. She noted that it “provides new insights on the effects of specific instruments — such as brass, woodwinds, strings, and keyboards — on aspects of cognition.”

”It begins to help us understand what types of music engagement might be beneficial for certain outcomes,” said Dr. Dorris.

She cited a randomized controlled trial looking at a music therapy-singing group, a music medicine-listening group, and a control-TV group.

“They found the singing group was the only group to report a significant increase in quality of life between the pre-test and the post-test,” said Dr. Dorris.

Oregon Health & Science Institute professor Dr. Larry Sherman, also not involved in the study, is the author of Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music.

“This [study] is exciting as it supports a need for music therapy as part of memory care,” he told us.

Dr. Sherman described the physiological mechanisms through which playing or singing music may support cognition:

“Practicing music can impact the brain in many ways, including increasing the speed of nerve impulses by inducing the formation of myelin, which wraps around nerve cell processes, and by increasing synapses — the connections between nerve cells. It may also actually drive the generation of new nerve cells.”

Much research regarding music and cognition has focused on elderly people with dementia.

Virginia Biggar of U.S. Aging, not involved in the current study, said: “There are myriad studies showing the different benefits of music for memory, cognition and brain health, as well as the value of music as a positive engagement tool for those with dementia.”

“Music,” said Biggar, “is commonly incorporated in programming in assisted living and nursing homes, whether in movement classes or similar events, singing or playing simple instruments for social engagement.”

Music is also a tool used for supporting memory, she added, “as a way to engage those who have dementia, or as a calming technique.”

Biggar also pointed out that there are choirs designed specifically for people with cognitive loss. “There are many dementia-friendly choirs being formed throughout the world, as music is increasingly recognized as therapeutic, fun, and an opportunity for engagement for those living with dementia and their care partners.

There are also various online resources for helping incorporate music into the lives of older people and those with dementia, such as Dr. Dorris’ research project, Project Unmute, which pairs younger musicians with older adults facing memory loss.