According to a new study, this 1 hobby is great for an aging brain

By | March 5, 2024

Do you want to protect your brain as you get older? Grab an instrument. Flashpop via Getty Images

If you want to strengthen your cognitive skills and keep your mind sharp throughout your life, you may want to pick up a musical instrument. A recent study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that play is good for your brain health as you age.

Researchers surveyed 1,107 people in Britain over the age of 40, with an average age of 67.82. Participants self-reported their musical experience via a questionnaire and took part in a cognitive assessment, testing their working memory and executive functions. Researchers then studied how four aspects of musicality – listening to music, playing an instrument, singing and self-reporting ability – affected cognitive behavior and compared that to people who had no musical background.

“This large-scale, longitudinal study supports previous research showing that musical training supports cognitive health by improving memory and lowering the risk of age-related cognitive decline,” said Dr. Gary Small, an expert on memory, brain and aging at Hackensack Meridian Health in New York. Jersey, told HuffPost via email. Small is not involved in the investigation.

It’s worth noting that 83% of participants were women, so it’s not entirely indicative of the general population. Another caveat is that some of the data is self-reported, said Dr. Arman Fesharaki-Zadeh, a behavioral neurologist and neuropsychiatrist at Yale Medicine in Connecticut, who is not involved in the study. Self-reporting leaves room for error; people may misremember their musical background or misunderstand a question.

Playing music largely involves your executive function, so it’s normal for people with a musical background to see an improvement in the brain, said Dr. Golnaz Yadollahikhales, a neurologist at Cedars-Sinai in California, who is not involved in the study.

Your executive function refers to your “ability to multitask and self-organize, and to be able to prioritize and prioritize,” Fesharaki-Zadeh explains. Plus, playing music keeps you cognitively active, which means it challenges your brain.

“Being cognitively active throughout your life may play a protective role” in brain health, Fesharaki-Zadeh continued. This is known as your cognitive reservoir (or cognitive reserve) and activities such as playing music can build this up.

Yadollahikhales noted that she has also seen the study’s findings in her daily work. People with good cognitive reserve perform well even when their brain scan shows signs of atrophy. According to the Cleveland Clinic, brain atrophy is linked to things like dementia and aphasia.

“The patients of mine who were musicians or who were still playing music at the time of diagnosis would show better cognitive function than expected based on their structural imaging findings,” Yadollahikhales said.

Knowing how to play keyboard-based instruments, such as the piano, benefited brain health the most.Knowing how to play keyboard-based instruments, such as the piano, benefited brain health the most.

Knowing how to play keyboard-based instruments, such as the piano, benefited brain health the most. Luis Alvarez via Getty Images

What this all means for you

You may want to consider getting into music. The research and experts who spoke to HuffPost were all quite clear that playing musical instruments and singing can be beneficial for your cognition in the long term.

If you’re ready to start some lessons and open to the process, consider trying specific instruments. The study found that playing keyboard-based instruments, such as the piano or organ, had the greatest benefit on memory and executive functions, study author Anne Corbett told Newsweek, followed by brass and woodwind instruments.

The social aspect of music can also be beneficial for your brain. Corbett also told Newsweek that the singers in the study were better at completing more complex tasks as they got older. But the research shows that the benefits that singing brings may also have to do with the social bonds that form when you sing in a choir or in a group setting.

“Music usually doesn’t happen in isolation,” Fesharaki-Zadeh said. Think about it: Music is often played in a group, practiced with a teacher, or performed for other people. That social interaction is one of those protective factors for brain health, he added.

Bottom line: you’re never too old to start learning and challenging your brain.

In general, it is recommended that people start building their cognitive reserve early in life,” Yadollahikhales said. “This can be achieved by playing music and games such as puzzles, reading books and being physically active…alSo, as also mentioned in this study, higher education can positively influence cognitive reserve.”

Even if it’s been years or even decades since you challenged your brain with something new, hope is not lost. “We are never too old to learn, I think that’s a well-known concept,” Fesharaki-Zadeh said. The benefits are visible whether you are 65 or 18.

Neurogenesis, the formation of new connections and new cells in the brain, is often not as robust for someone in their mid-seventies as for someone who, for example, learns a new job in their mid-twenties. But learning music (or learning something new) reactivates this process, Fesharaki-Zadeh added.

“Let’s say someone doesn’t have dementia [and] they wonder in what ways they can protect their brains from dementia – music could potentially be a viable strategy as it encompasses many of the other factors such as learning, emotional well-being, social connections – and they are all great for the brain, ” said Fesharaki-Zadeh.

It is important to keep in mind that while you can control certain risk factors, you cannot control your genetics.

“Although this study shows that musicality provides a significant cognitive benefit, other non-genetic and genetic risk factors contribute to the risk of cognitive decline,” Small said. “So even very successful people with healthy lifestyles will develop dementia if they have a strong genetic predisposition.”

But as Yadollahikhales said above, if you build up your cognitive reserve throughout your life, you will be better off if you develop cognitive impairment or dementia. Studies “have shown that being cognitively, socially and physically active after the development of cognitive impairment and dementia can slow the progression of the disease,” Yadollahikhales said.

So go ahead and pick up that guitar – or whatever instrument makes you happy.


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