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Playing an instrument leads to better brain health throughout life

Engaging with music and playing an instrument leads to better brain health in older age, according to a recent study from the University of Exeter.

The results indicate a clear correlation between music engagement and improved cognitive function in later life.

The research is part of the PROTECT study, an online platform open to people aged 40 and over. This platform provided data for more than 1,000 adults. 

Focus of the study

The researchers explored the impact of playing musical instruments or singing in a choir on brain health. 

The experts reviewed participants’ musical experience and lifetime exposure to music, as well as the results of cognitive testing, to determine whether music engagement helps to keep the brain sharp in later life.

The analysis revealed that playing a musical instrument, particularly the piano, correlates with enhanced memory and better executive function, which involves complex task-solving abilities. 

The benefits are even more pronounced for those who continue their musical pursuits into later life.

Singing, though beneficial as well, seems to owe part of its positive impact to the social aspects of choir participation.

Cognitive reserve 

“A number of studies have looked at the effect of music on brain health. 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,” said Professor Anne Corbett.

“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.”

“There is considerable evidence for the benefit of music group activities for individuals with dementia, and this approach could be extended as part of a healthy ageing package for older adults to enable them to proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”

Playing an instrument as a lifelong engagement

Stuart Douglas, a 78-year-old accordion enthusiast from Cornwall, exemplifies the study’s findings on music engagement.

A lifelong accordion player, Douglas currently plays with the Cober Valley Accordion Band and the Cornish Division of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. 

“I learnt to play the accordion as a boy living in a mining village in Fife and carried on throughout my career in the police force and beyond. These days I still play regularly, and playing in the band also keeps my calendar full, as we often perform in public,” said Douglas.

“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.”

Additional health benefits from playing an instrument

Playing an instrument offers a range of health benefits that extend beyond simple enjoyment. First, it engages both the mind and body, providing a comprehensive mental workout.

This engagement helps improve memory and cognitive skills, as learning and playing music requires the use of various brain areas.

Stress relief from music engagement

Moreover, playing an instrument can be a significant stress reliever. The act of focusing on music can be meditative, diverting attention away from daily stresses and anxieties.

It also releases endorphins, the body’s natural stress-relievers, leading to feelings of happiness and relaxation.

Playing an instrument helps brain development 

For children and adolescents, learning an instrument can be particularly beneficial for brain development. It can improve language skills, enhance coordination, and boost self-esteem.

As they master new pieces, their confidence grows, which can be valuable in other areas of life.

In older adults, playing an instrument can be an effective way to keep the brain active. It can delay cognitive decline and improve mental agility. 

Music engagement improves social connections 

Furthermore, for people of all ages, playing an instrument can foster social connections, whether through joining a band, orchestra, or simply sharing music with friends and family.

These social aspects can combat feelings of loneliness and promote a sense of community and belonging.

The PROTECT study is open to new participants aged 40 and over. To find out more, visit:

The study is published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry


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