Music has often been described as having healing powers, but can it influence our physiology in a way to help protect against cognitive decline? Recent studies suggest that music may enhance cognitive function and promote healthy aging.
Playing a musical instrument throughout life is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia . This has been attributed to the ability of musical training and performance to increase the resiliency of the brain. Playing a musical instrument requires active engagement of a wide-range of cognitive processes, including the sensory and motor systems . It has been unclear whether these neuroprotective benefits are restricted to life-long musicians, or also apply to people who begin musical training later in life.
A research group in Spain set out to address this question by performing a meta-analysis of studies assessing cognitive function in adults age 59 or older that engaged in musical practice over the course of their lives, and a separate analysis of studies where participants received musical training as older adults (age 60-85) . Consistent with previous studies, they found that involvement in musical performance throughout life was associated with protective effects on cognitive function, particularly when musical training began during childhood. Notably, the associated cognitive benefits extended beyond tasks directly relevant for musical practice to also include improvements to general cognitive functions, such as attention, reasoning, and speed of information processing.
The results were also encouraging for musical training in late adulthood, as the participants showed similar general cognitive function enhancements as the life-long musicians. Unlike training that begins in youth, where benefits appear to be maintained throughout life, the effects of training in later life may be more transient, as some of the cognitive function improvements were lost after participants stopped their musical training. This suggests that continued engagement in musical practice may be necessary for long-lasting benefit. However, the number of studies included in the second analysis was much smaller, so additional studies are needed to confirm these results.
While active musical practice may offer the greatest level of neuroprotection, there is evidence that simply listening to music can also have beneficial effects toward cognitive function and aging. In a randomized clinical trial, adults with subjective (self-observed) cognitive impairment who listened to 12 minutes of music every day for 12 weeks showed a decrease in a cellular biomarker of aging in the blood, as well as improvements in memory, mood, sleep, and executive cognitive function . Similar, or in some cases more robust, benefits were also seen in participants who engaged in meditation for the study. Music and mediation are known to reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and feelings of pain, which may underlie the beneficial effects on both mind and body. Participants who engaged in these practices with the most regularity were the ones who obtained the highest level of benefit.
These studies suggest that it is never too late for the brain to benefit from the powers of music, and the more actively one engages in music-making, the greater the powers become.
Betsy Mills, PhD, is Senior Program Manager of Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. She earned her doctorate in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she studied the role of glial cells in the optic nerve and their contribution to neurodegeneration in glaucoma; and completed a Postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she worked to uncover genes that could promote retina regeneration. Dr. Mills has a strong passion for community outreach, and served as program presenter with the Michigan Great Lakes Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association to promote dementia awareness.
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