Not everyone gets dementia, but everyone will experience some degree of cognitive decline as they age – reaction times get slower, for example, while both short and long-term memory are reduced. The good news is that cognitive decline is modifiable. While genetics certainly plays a role, we know from identical twin studies that lifestyle factors can also lead to better cognitive performance in old age.
You can probably already guess that the big three pillars of longevity (sleep, diet and exercise) are all associated with improved cognitive performance in old age. This paper, however, looks at a more artistic practice: playing a musical instrument.
Why music? We’ve written on this site before about how engaging the brain may build cognitive reserve – a concept in which having more neural connections makes the brain more resilient to the effects of ageing. Learning a musical instrument is an excellent way to engage many aspects of cognition at once: memory, motor skills, auditory and visual processing, and the direction of attention required to coordinate all of these things together.
In the present peer-reviewed study, which was published in Psychology and Aging, researchers looked at data from the Lothian Birth Cohort (LBC 1936). This was a longitudinal study designed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh as a follow-up to the Scottish Mental Survey, in which 11-year old children took cognitive tests. LBC1936 looked at people born in 1936 who had taken the survey and asked them if they wanted to visit the university so that cognitive, genetic, lifestyle and other health data could be collected. These visits started at age 70 and were repeated every three years until age 85. A questionnaire about lifetime musical experience was given on the fifth visit. This resulted in a total of 420 participants for whom musical experience data was available.
Most people start learning in childhood and then give up
About 40% of participants reported experience with a musical instrument. Of those, about half had formal musical training and reported reaching an ‘intermediate’ level of performance. The median (average) age they started playing an instrument was 10, but more than half of them had quit by age 19, and only 39 participants still played an instrument at age 82.
People with musical experience are sharper in old age, but their brains still age just as quickly
So, how did experience of playing an instrument affect cognitive function? When different aspects of cognitive function were measured from age 70 onwards, the researchers found that participants’ performance varied greatly regardless of musical experience. Plenty of participants without musical experience showed better cognitive function than the majority of people with musical experience. However, on average, people who reported having some amount of musical experience did perform significantly better in four cognitive tests: verbal ability, verbal memory, processing speed and visuospatial ability. These associations were reduced when confounding factors (like childhood cognitive ability and education level) were controlled for, but were still statistically significant.
What did not change significantly between people with musical experience and those without was the rate of cognitive decline between visits to the university. So, while the average cognitive performance at age 70 was higher among those with musical experience, these people had lost just as much performance in the interim as those without musical experience by age 82.
Quitting Early Is Associated With Fewer Benefits
Next, researchers wanted to investigate whether these benefits to cognitive performance depended on continued musical practice into old age, or whether participants merely needed to have learnt a musical instrument at some point. To do this, they re-ran the analysis but excluded participants who reported playing a musical instrument beyond the age of 30. Upon doing this, they found that musical experience was only significantly associated with processing speed, but none of the other measurements of cognition.
These results suggest that musical experience is associated with improved cognition, especially if maintained into old age, but doesn’t slow down the rate at which your cognitive performance declines. This aligns with the idea of cognitive reserve – it’s very hard to prevent brain ageing, but you can guard against its effects by starting with higher cognitive performance, meaning you can afford to lose more of it before it starts to affect your life.
The results suggest that the benefits of musical training could persist for a long time. Even in people who ceased their musical practice past age 30, there was some benefit to cognitive performance, suggesting that cognitive benefits lasted at least 50 years.
Since this was an observational study, we have to talk about confounding factors. People with higher socioeconomic status and more education, for example, are more likely to take up a musical instrument, and we also know that socioeconomic status and education predict cognitive performance in old age. Also, people who are good at music (because they have better processing speed and visuospatial skills to begin with) are less likely to give up. Scientists have to adjust for these factors, and no adjustment is perfect. The differences in cognitive performance between people with and without musical experience were not that large. Some studies are looking at whether people randomly assigned musical training see an increase in cognitive performance. This should give us a better idea about whether musical training is truly responsible for the recorded effects, but until then we need to take them with a pinch of salt.
The study didn’t perform a more detailed breakdown of how the age at which musical training started and stopped affected cognitive performance. This was probably because the sample size would have made this kind of analysis difficult. However, it means we don’t really know whether there’s a point at which it becomes too late to benefit from musical training. Was it more beneficial to learn in childhood and quit after five years, or to learn at age 50 and keep it up throughout life?
For similar reasons, we don’t know whether people who reached more advanced levels of musical experience benefited more than those who remained at a beginner level.
Finally, this study was restricted to people born in Scotland in 1936 and was not ethnically diverse, so the results might not be generalisable to the population as a whole.
Overall, this study builds on existing evidence that musical experience is associated with improved cognitive function in old age. It suggests that having musical experience may not slow cognitive decline in old age, but does lead to a long-lasting increase in cognitive performance.
The researchers are planning further studies exploring the association between music and health, and would like to hear from people with musical experience including informal music listening, singing and dancing. Anyone over 18 can volunteer to join their database and contribute to future studies. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.
Title image by Wes Hicks, Upslash
Cognitive ageing and experience of playing a musical instrument