This Harmonious Hobby Could Reduce Your Dementia Risk, Says New Study

Updated: Jun. 22, 2023

Explore how a classic discipline could be a powerful tool against dementia, according to a new study from leading Swiss universities.

Concert season is a fun reminder of how hearing music can make you feel young. Now a new study offers inspiring evidence that it’s also never too late to try your own hand at musical performance. April 2023 research from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva, and EPFL presents compelling evidence of the profound influence of music—both in practice and appreciation—on maintaining brain health, especially for older adults.

In a world where dementia affects over 55 million people and a new case occurs every three seconds, this study provides a glimmer of hope. Published in the peer-reviewed NeuroImage: Reports, the research highlights the significant effects of engaging with music on brain health, potentially decelerating cognitive decline and enhancing memory function.

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Understanding the study

As we journey through life, our brains naturally evolve. The ability of the brain to reshape itself—known as brain plasticity—gradually decreases, and the grey matter, home to our neurons, begins to shrink. This process, called brain atrophy, is linked to cognitive decline, particularly affecting our working memory—our capacity to briefly store and manipulate information.

The UNIGE-led study sought to investigate if musical activities could counteract these effects. Over 100 retirees aged 62 to 78, who had never practiced music before, enrolled for six months’ training in piano and music awareness. The researchers found that practicing and actively listening to music could prevent working memory decline and stimulate the production of grey matter, promoting brain plasticity​.

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The findings

The study’s participants were randomly assigned to two groups: One that practiced playing the piano, and another with active listening lessons that focused on instrument recognition and analysis of various musical styles.

One neat discovery was that both showed an impact—says Clara James, PhD, a study author who’s on the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of UNIGE: “After six months, we found common effects for both interventions.” Dr. James, who’s also a full professor at the Geneva School of Health Sciences, adds, “Neuroimaging revealed an increase in grey matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including cerebellum areas involved in working memory.”

The participants’ performance improved by 6%, a result directly linked to the plasticity of the cerebellum. The researchers also discovered that three main factors contributed positively to performance improvement: Sleep quality, the total number of lessons undertaken throughout the intervention, and the daily training volume.

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The implications

While the results are promising, researchers caution that music doesn’t reverse brain aging, but helps preserve certain areas. The pianist group showed stable grey matter volume in the right primary auditory cortex (vital for sound processing), while the active listening group saw a decrease. This indicates that music may not rejuvenate the brain entirely, but it can significantly impact specific regions, promoting their health and functionality.

It’s important to note that this study echoes previous research. A 2014 report in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease identified a correlation between lifelong musical instrument playing and a reduced risk of dementia. Another investigation discovered that merely listening to music and meditating can foster brain health as we age.

The study’s authors propose that these interventions should be prioritized for promoting healthy aging. Music can be a powerful tool for cognitive reserve and brain plasticity and can be a fun, rewarding, and enriching activity.

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The Mayo Clinic recommends mind-nurturing activities such as reading, solving puzzles, playing word games, and memory training among the preventative strategies against dementia. They suggest that these activities could delay the onset of dementia and reduce its effects. The study’s interventions, learning to play a new instrument and active listening lessons, are prime examples of such mentally stimulating activities.

The next step for these researchers? To investigate the potential of these interventions in people with mild cognitive impairment, a stage between normal aging and dementia. Sweet melodies could show increased evidence as a key to a healthier aging process…which might be music to your ears.

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