Better Brain Health Linked To Playing An Instrument

In the midst of ongoing stress and heightened anxiety and depression music can help some people during these troubling times by soothing the soul and calming the overstimulated mind by increasing levels of serotonin and feel-good endorphins. Now a new study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry from experts at the University of Exeter working on the PROTECT Study suggests that engaging in music throughout life is associated with better brain health in older age. 

Over 25,000 people have enrolled in the PROTECT Study, which is an online study that is open to those aged 40+. The study has been running for more than ten years by the University of Exeter and Kings College Londons in partnership with the NHS, with the goal to understand how healthy brains age and why people develop dementia. 

“We know dementia risk can be reduced by one-third through improving lifestyle factors from midlife. This study will provide valuable information about how the brain changes with age, which combination of factors such as exercise and diet really work, and how we can best encourage people to adopt these changes,” said Professor Clive Ballard, Executive Dean and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter Medical School.

For this study, researchers reviewed data from over a thousand people enrolled in the PROTECT Study to investigate the effects of playing a musical instrument and singing in a choir on brain health. The researchers analyzed musical experience and lifetime exposure to music alongside the results of a series of cognitive tests to determine whether music helps to keep the brain sharp later in life. 

The idea for the study came from University of Exeter Medicine student Gaia Vetere, a keen pianist, who contacted the PROTECT study team. She said: “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.”

According to the researchers, playing a musical instrument, particularly the piano, is linked to improved memory and ability to solve complex tasks (executive function). Continuing to play musical instruments later in life was found to provide even greater benefits. 

“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,” said Anne Corbett, Professor of Dementia Research at the University of Exeter. 

“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 ageing package for older adults to enable them to proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”

Stuart Douglas, a 78-year-old accordion player from Cornwall, has played the instrument throughout his life and now plays with the Cober Valley Accordion Band as well as the Cornish Division of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. He said: “I learnt 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. 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.”

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