It’s well-known that practicing or listening to music can reduce stress and improve mood. Now, a new study has found that playing an instrument is especially good for older adults as it is associated with better brain health.
For this study, researchers from the University of Exeter reviewed over 25,000 people’s musical experience and lifetime exposure to music, as well as results of cognitive testing, to find out whether playing instruments or singing helps to keep the brain sharp in later life, the university’s press statement explained.
The findings, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, showed that playing a musical instrument, particularly the piano, is associated with improved memory and executive function—the ability to solve complex tasks. Notably, continuing to play into later life is linked to greater benefits.
The study showed that singing also led to better brain health. However, this could also be because of the social factors of being part of a choir or group. In the statement, Amy Corbett, one of the study authors said the findings show 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.”
Corbett added that this approach could enable older adults to proactively reduce their risk and promote brain health.
Previous studies have also shown that engaging with music can improve the quality of life of older adults. For instance, a study published in NeuroImage: Reports in April 2023, discovered that music can help alter cognitive decline in healthy older adults by stimulating the production of grey matter. With age, brain plasticity, a process that involves adaptive structural and functional changes to the brain, decreases. But the study showed that practicing and listening to music can enhance brain plasticity and cognitive reserve.
A 2021 study conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto (U of T) and Unity Health Toronto found similar associations. The findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, showed that repeated listening to personally meaningful music leads to beneficial brain plasticity in patients with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer's disease.