Article image

Music can prevent brain aging and cognitive decline

As we grow older, it is an unfortunate reality that our cognitive abilities gradually decline. The loss of brain plasticity and a decrease in grey matter, where our neurons are located, are linked to this decline. Scientists have long been searching for ways to delay this cognitive decline in healthy seniors. 

A recent breakthrough study led by a team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL has found that practicing and listening to music can help slow down this process by stimulating the production of grey matter.

Published in the journal NeuroImage: Reports, the study investigated the potential benefits of music practice and active listening on cognitive functions, specifically working memory, in healthy retirees who had never practiced music before. 

Working memory is a core cognitive process that allows us to briefly retain and manipulate information to achieve a goal. Remembering a telephone number long enough to write it down or translating a sentence from a foreign language are examples.

The research team followed 132 healthy retirees, aged 62 to 78. The subjects had not taken any music lessons for more than six months in their lives. The researchers enrolled these participants in piano and music awareness training for a period of six months.

The results demonstrated that engaging in these activities promoted brain plasticity, which led to an increase in grey matter volume. The researchers also observed positive impacts on working memory.

Throughout our lives, our brain constantly remodels itself. Brain morphology and connections change according to the environment and our experiences. One example of this is when we learn new skills or recover from a stroke. However, as we age, this “brain plasticity” decreases, leading to “brain atrophy,” or the loss of grey matter.

Practicing vs. listening to music

‘‘We wanted people whose brains did not yet show any traces of plasticity linked to musical learning. Indeed, even a brief learning experience in the course of one’s life can leave imprints on the brain, which would have biased our results,” explained study first author Damien Marie, a research associate at the CIBM Center for Biomedical Imaging, the Faculty of Medicine and the Interfaculty Center for Affective Sciences (CISA) of UNIGE, as well as at the Geneva School of Health Sciences.

Researchers divided the participants into two groups. One group took piano lessons while the other engaged in active listening sessions. The active listening group focused on instrument recognition and analysis of musical properties across a wide range of musical styles. The researchers required both groups to attend one-hour classes and do half an hour of homework daily.

Positive impact found for both groups

‘‘After six months, we found common effects for both interventions. Neuroimaging revealed an increase in grey matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including cerebellum areas involved in working memory. Their performance increased by six percent and this result was directly correlated to the plasticity of the cerebellum,’’ said study last author Clara James, a privat-docent at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of UNIGE.

Interestingly, the researchers discovered that the quality of sleep, the number of lessons attended, and the daily training quantity positively influenced the degree of improvement in performance.

However, the researchers observed differences between the two groups. For the group of pianists, the volume of grey matter remained stable in the right primary auditory cortex. This is a key region for sound processing. In contrast, the active listening group experienced a decrease in grey matter volume in the same area.

“In addition, a global brain pattern of atrophy was present in all participants. Therefore, we cannot conclude that musical interventions rejuvenate the brain. They only prevent aging in specific regions,” explained Marie.

The findings of this study open up new possibilities for promoting healthy aging and supporting cognitive functions in older adults. By engaging in music practice and active listening, seniors can help preserve their working memory and potentially slow down the decline of other cognitive processes as well.

The researchers from UNIGE, HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL have provided valuable insights into the potential benefits of music training on cognitive decline in healthy seniors. As the global population continues to age, these findings are promising. They offer exciting prospects for maintaining cognitive health and promoting well-being in our later years.

More about music and the mind

People have long recognized music for its ability to evoke emotions and influence various aspects of human brain functioning. Researchers have conducted numerous studies over the years to understand the underlying mechanisms and the extent of music’s impact on the brain. Some key findings include:

Emotional processing

Music can elicit strong emotional responses, such as joy, sadness, and relaxation. The emotional impact of music is believed to be linked to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine. This chemical plays a role in the brain’s reward system, and serotonin, which contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being.

Memory and learning

Studies have shown that listening to music can improve memory retention and learning in various tasks. This is partly due to music’s ability to enhance the encoding of information and improve cognitive performance. Familiar music can also trigger memories. This trick makes it an effective tool in therapies for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Spatial-temporal skills

Research has found that engaging in musical activities, such as playing an instrument or listening to certain types of music, can enhance spatial-temporal skills. These skills are essential for solving complex problems and understanding abstract concepts.

Stress reduction and relaxation

Listening to music can have a calming effect on the mind and body. Studies have demonstrated that music can lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is associated with stress, and increase the release of endorphins, the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals.

Brain connectivity and neuroplasticity

Music training and practice have been shown to promote brain connectivity and neuroplasticity. Learning to play an instrument can enhance motor skills and auditory processing, and boost cognitive functions such as attention and memory. As seen in the previously mentioned study, music can also help maintain brain plasticity in older adults, potentially slowing cognitive decline.

Pain management

Music has been used as a complementary therapy for pain management in various settings. Listening to music can distract the brain from pain, lower anxiety, and create a more positive emotional state, making it easier to cope with discomfort.

Mood regulation

Music can be an effective tool for regulating mood and promoting emotional well-being. By selecting music that resonates with our emotional state or the emotions we want to experience, we can influence our mood and maintain emotional balance.

In summary, music has a profound impact on human emotions and brain functioning. It can elicit powerful emotional responses, enhance cognitive performance, promote relaxation, and even help manage pain. The ability of music to influence the brain and emotions has led to its integration into various therapies and interventions for mental health and well-being.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day