Musical activities could protect brain health in older adults

Playing a musical instrument, particularly the piano, is linked to improved memory and the ability to solve complex tasks in older age, according to a new study.

The study, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that continuing to play into later life provides even greater benefit. The work also suggests that singing was also linked to better brain health, although this may also be due to the social factors of being part of a choir or group.

The results are from a nested study within the PROTECT-UK cohort, which collects longitudinal computerised assessments of cognitive function in adults over 40. Participants were invited to complete the validated Edinburgh Lifetime Musical Experience Questionnaire (ELMEQ) to assess their musical experience and lifetime exposure to music. Linear regression analysis was performed using cognitive data from PROTECT-UK.

Over 25000 people have signed up for the PROTECT study, which has been running for 10 years. The team from the University of Exeter reviewed participants’ musical experience and lifetime exposure to music, alongside results of cognitive testing, to determine whether musicality helps to keep the brain sharp in later life.

Musical instruments and working memory

Analysis identified an association between musicality and cognition in this cohort. Playing a musical instrument was associated with significantly better performance in working memory and executive function. Significant associations were also found between singing and executive function, and between overall musical ability and working memory.

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

“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.”

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