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Playing an instrument linked to better brain health in adults: study

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Engaging in musical activities, such as playing instruments or singing in choirs, could contribute to maintaining cognitive sharpness in older age, a new study suggests.

About the study: The study, published this month in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, analyzed data from over 1,000 participants in the PROTECT study, an ongoing online study of over 25,000 participants aged 40 and above. Using the data, researchers from the University of Exeter examined the participants' musical experience (playing instruments, singing in choirs) and cognitive test results to see if there was a link.

What they found: The study found that playing a musical instrument throughout life, especially the piano, is associated with better brain health in older adults. This includes improved memory and executive function (the ability to plan, organize, and solve problems). The study also acknowledges the potential social and cognitive benefits of singing in choirs.

Integrating music for better brain health: Professor Anne Corbett, a dementia research expert at the University of Exeter, emphasized in a press release the potential of musical activities in bolstering the brain's agility and resilience, contributing to what is known as “cognitive reserve.”

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“Our findings indicate 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. There is considerable evidence for the benefit of music group activities for individuals with dementia, and this approach could be extended as part of a healthy aging package for older adults to enable them to proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”

Karaoke and dementia: A similar study involving over 50,000 Japanese older adults showed that playing an instrument reduced the risk of dementia in women by 23%, while karaoke practice was linked to a 13% decrease. The trend of lower dementia risk was also observed in men, but it did not reach statistical significance.

Meanwhile, a South Korean study in 2021 investigated the impact of music therapy on Korean nursing home residents with dementia. The study found that music therapy significantly improved cognitive function, memory and emotional well-being in participants. Researchers observed a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms.

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Learning music early: Cultural tradition and strong educational systems play a significant role in fostering instrument playing from a young age. In many Asian communities, households often prioritize academic excellence and holistic development, which frequently includes music education. This emphasis on musical training from childhood cultivates discipline, focus and cognitive skills, potentially contributing to better brain health later in life.

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