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This 1 Hobby Is Great For An Aging Brain, According To A New Study

Want to protect your brain as you age? Pick up an instrument.
Want to protect your brain as you age? Pick up an instrument. Flashpop via Getty Images

If you’re looking to bolster your cognitive abilities and keep your mind sharp throughout your lifetime, you may want to pick up a musical instrument. A recent study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that playing is good for your brain health as you age.

Researchers examined 1,107 people in the U.K. 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, which tested their working memory and executive function. Researchers then studied how four aspects of musicality — listening to music, playing an instrument, singing and self-reported ability — impacted cognitive behavior and compared that to people who did not have a musical background.

“This large-scale, longitudinal study supports previous research indicating that musical training supports cognitive health by improving memory and lowering risk for age-related cognitive decline,” Dr. Gary Small, a memory, brain and aging expert at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey, told HuffPost via email. Small is not affiliated with the study.

It’s worth noting that 83% of participants were women, so it’s not totally indicative of the general population. Another caveat is that some data was self-reported, said Dr. Arman Fesharaki-Zadeh, a behavioral neurologist and neuropsychiatrist at Yale Medicine in Connecticut, who is not affiliated with 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 natural for folks 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 affiliated with the study.

Your executive function refers to your “ability to multitask and organize oneself, and being able to sequence and prioritize,” Fesharaki-Zadeh explained. Additionally, playing music keeps you cognitively active, meaning it challenges your brain.

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

Yadollahikhales noted that she’s seen the study’s findings in her day-to-day work, too. People with a good cognitive reserve perform well even when their brain imaging has signs of atrophy. Brain atrophy is linked to issues like dementia and aphasia, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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

Knowing how to play keyboard-based instruments — like the piano — benefitted brain health most.
Knowing how to play keyboard-based instruments — like the piano — benefitted brain health most. Luis Alvarez via Getty Images

What This All Means For You

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

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

The social aspect of music may be beneficial for your brain, too. Corbett also told Newsweek that the singers in the study had better complex task completion as they aged. But the study noted that the benefits that come with singing may also have to do with the social connections that are formed when singing with a choir or in a group setting.

“Music doesn’t usually 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.

Overall, 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 mentioned in this study as well, higher education can affect cognitive reserve positively.”

Even if it’s been years or even decades since you’ve challenged your brain to something new, hope is not lost. “We’re never too old to learn, I think that’s a known concept,” Fesharaki-Zadeh said. Benefits can be seen whether you’re 65 or 18.

Neurogenesis, the forming of new connections and new cells in the brain, is often not as robust for someone in their mid-70s when compared to someone, say, learning at a new job in their mid-20s. But by learning music (or by learning anything new) you activate this process again, Fesharaki-Zadeh added.

“So, let’s say somebody doesn’t have dementia [and] they’re wondering what are the ways that they can protect their brains against dementia — music could be potentially a viable strategy because it does incorporate a lot of the other factors such as learning, emotional well-being, social connections ― and they’re all great for the brain,” Fesharaki-Zadeh said.

It’s important to keep in mind that while you can control certain risk factors, you can’t control your genetics.

“Although this study demonstrates 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 highly successful people with healthy lifestyles will develop dementia if they have a strong genetic predisposition.”

But, as Yadollahikhales mentioned above, if you build your cognitive reserve throughout your life, you’ll be better off if you do 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 down 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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