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Playing an instrument linked to better brain health in older adults

Published: 29 January 2024

Practising and reading music helps sustain good memory and the ability to solve complex tasks, according to new research part-funded by the NIHR. 

Researchers looked at the effects of playing an instrument, singing, reading and listening to music, and musical ability. They compared the brain tests of those who engaged in music in their lives, with those who haven't engaged in music. 

The benefits of playing a musical instrument

Playing an instrument is linked to better brain health in older adults. Looking at the differences in the group the researchers found:

  • keyboard or brass instrument players maintained better working memory
  • woodwind instrument players were better at goal setting tasks 
  • higher musical ability, which includes reading music, was associated with better performance on a numerical memory task 
  • people who played multiple musical instruments did not have better brain health than people who played a single instrument
  • continuing music into later life protects your memory and is particularly beneficial

Researcher Anne Corbett, Professor in Dementia Research NIHR Exeter Biomedical Research Centre, said: "Because we have such sensitive brain tests for this study, we are able to look at individual aspects of the brain function, such as short-term memory, long-term memory, and problem-solving and how engaging music affects that. Specifically, playing an instrument has a particularly big effect, and people who continue to play into an older age see an additional benefit."

Singing and listening to music

The researchers also found people who sing in a group have better verbal reasoning. But this may be to do with the social aspects of being in a choir. Just listening to music did not help cognitive health.

The research suggests that promoting musical education should be considered when formulating public health policy, interventions and messages. Older adults should be encouraged to return to music in later life. 

The report was published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. The study was part-funded by the NIHR Exeter Biomedical Research Centre and supported by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South West Peninsula (PenARC).

The PROTECT study

The research is part of the PROTECT Study. Over the last 10 years 25,000 people aged over 40 have signed up. The study aims to understand how healthy brains age and why people develop dementia. They use yearly online tests to: 

  • measure changes in brain function
  • capture lifestyle
  • record medical history and mental health

Find out more about the PROTECT Study

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