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Longevity

Longevity Briefs: Learning A Musical Instrument May Protect The Ageing Brain

Posted on 30 January 2024

Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

The problem: Some level of cognitive impairment in old age seems to be inevitable, but there is a large degree of variation from one person to another. Some people begin to suffer mild cognitive impairment in their 60s, while others can live past age 100 without any serious cognitive problems. It’s clear that certain lifestyle practices protect against cognitive decline and dementia, but we don’t have a great understanding of what those practices are. 

Previous studies suggest that playing a musical instrument reduces the risk of cognitive impairment. Specifically, musical skills may not slow the rate of cognitive decline in old age, but may instead build a reserve of processing power that can be safely eroded without impacting day-to-day function.

The discovery: In this study, researchers surveyed over 1100 adults about their musical experience. The participants had a mean age of 68 and were part of a larger study called PROTECT-UK, which collects long-term data about cognitive function. In agreement with previous studies, they found that playing a musical instrument (either currently or formerly) was associated with significantly improved cognitive function compared to those with no musical experience. Specifically, they fared better in working memory and executive function tasks.

Level of benefit (effect size) of musical experience for different cognitive tests compared to those with no musical experience, with their corresponding P values. The P value is the estimated probability that an effect size would have been observed by random chance, even if there were no difference between compared groups. A P value of less than 0.05 is generally considered to be ‘statistically significant’.
The relationship between playing musical instruments and cognitive trajectories: Analysis from a UK ageing cohort
https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.6061

Upon breaking down the results further, researchers found that people who played the piano or keyboard appeared to have significantly better working memory than those playing other instruments. Brass and woodwind instruments, but not other categories types, were also associated with significantly improved function. Singing was also associated with significantly improved executive function, but not as strongly as playing an instrument, while listening to music wasn’t associated with any benefit. Finally, researchers found that people who still played an instrument at the time of the survey had significantly better working memory than those who used to play an instrument.

The relationship between playing musical instruments and cognitive trajectories: Analysis from a UK ageing cohort
https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.6061

The implications: This research supports previous evidence that playing a musical instrument improves cognitive function, and also suggests that maintaining musical skills into older age is important. It’s not clear why benefits were lesser or non-existent for some instruments, but we should keep in mind that the effect sizes in this study were rather small, and a significant benefit for other instruments could have gone undetected in a study of this size.

We also need to consider other factors that could have been partly responsible for the benefits of playing an instrument. For example, about half of the respondents had played in a group, and we know that social activity is associated with reduced cognitive decline. However, this wouldn’t explain why playing an instrument was more beneficial than singing. Playing a musical instrument is a cognitively demanding task that engages sensor and motor function, working memory, long term memory, executive function and auditory and visual processing. It would not be surprising for such a practice to benefit the brain.


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    References

    Title image by Marius Masalar, Upslash

    The relationship between playing musical instruments and cognitive trajectories: Analysis from a UK ageing cohort https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.6061

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