Playing or Listening to Music Can Aid Cognition

As we age, cognition can decline as the brain loses plasticity and gray matter decreases. Researchers are always looking for ways to slow the decline to help people stay healthy and retain their mental sharpness as long as possible. A new study has found that music can help.

Led by scientists from the Univ. of Geneva, the study learned that practicing or listening to music can slow mental decline. They looked at the impact of music on working memory in healthy older people who hadn’t played a musical instrument before the study. They learned that music stimulates the production of gray matter.

The study used 132 people between the ages of 62 and 78. No one had taken music lessons for more than six months in their lives.

We wanted people whose brains did not yet show any traces of plasticity linked to musical learning. Indeed, even a brief learning experience in the course of one’s life can leave imprints on the brain, which would have biased our results,” said study first author Damien Marie.

They were given piano lessons or music awareness training for six months. The actions aided brain plasticity, increased gray matter volume and aided working memory. Brain atrophy is not inevitable as we age, but it is common. Steps can be taken to avoid it.

I go out of my way to make sure that my patients understand that old age does not mean that there’s going to be a loss of brain function,” said Dr. Puja Uppal, a general practitioner who wasn’t involved in the study. “In fact, engaging in activities that stimulate the brain is vital for you to age healthily. Even simple stuff like talking on the phone, listening to music, singing and being social, all help in keeping your brain active as you age. For some people, this certainly will prevent and delay the onset of dementia.”

One group was taught to play the piano. The other took active listening classes. They were taught to hear different instruments within music and identify musical properties across different styles of music. Both groups attended one-hour classes and had a half hour of homework daily.

Both groups had positive results. That’s great news. Not everyone has access to music lessons, but we can all learn to appreciate music and pay attention to songs more closely. Brain imaging showed that gray matter had increased in four areas of the brain. They performed six percent better on memory tests.

The people playing piano did fare better in some ways. They maintained the amount of gray matter in the area of the brain that handles sound processing. At the same time, it decreased in the listening group. But, compared to not interacting with music, everyone benefited. Nothing in the study suggested that music could stop overall brain atrophy. The training only impacted those four areas. However, those four areas still aided cognition and plasticity.

If you have ever wanted to learn a musical instrument, this is the push you need. And, if that’s not your speed, start listening to music more closely. It’s a great way to take care of your brain!

Banner image: Mikhail Nilov via Unsplash

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