Photo by Gabriel Gurrola

Person playing piano Photo by Gabriel Gurrola on Unsplash

EXETER, United Kingdom — Playing a musical instrument or singing in a choir can help keep you sharp in old age, a new study suggests. Researchers have found that lifelong musical engagement can enhance brain health as we age.

The study, conducted by a team from the University of Exeter, highlights the benefits of playing instruments, particularly the piano, in improving memory and the ability to perform complex tasks. Additionally, singing in a choir offers both social and cognitive health benefits.

The researchers aimed to promote musical education as a public health initiative, benefiting both young and old individuals. Scientists used data from the online PROTECT study, involving more than 1,000 adults over 40, to examine the impact of musical activity on brain health. The PROTECT study, with over 25,000 participants, has been ongoing for over a decade.

The investigation focuses on the relationship between participants’ musical experiences, their lifelong exposure to music, and cognitive test results. Findings indicate that playing an instrument, especially the piano, is linked with enhanced memory and executive function skills, which include planning, goal-setting, self-control, and maintaining focus despite distractions.

The team notes that continued musical practice into later life offers even greater brain benefits. The study also suggests that singing, potentially influenced by the social aspects of choir participation, is associated with improved brain health.

Three Men Playing Musical Instruments
Researchers say playing an instrument, particularly the piano, has been found to improve memory and skills like planning, setting goals, self-control, and staying focused even when there are distractions. (Photo by Dimitri Dim)

“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,” says Professor Anne Corbett, a Dementia Research expert at the University of Exeter, in a media release. “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.”

Stuart Douglas, a 78-year-old accordion player from Cornwall, strongly believes that playing music has helped keep his and his band members’ minds sharp. As a member of the Cober Valley Accordion Band and the Cornish Division of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, Douglas plays at Memory Cafés, which support dementia sufferers and their caretakers.

Douglas learned the accordion in his youth and continued playing throughout his police career.

“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.”

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

South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.

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