Getting older. It is the one thing that none of us can avoid, yet most of us worry about. Time flies and life can seem too short sometimes- these are almost universally held opinions. Thankfully, however, there are ways that we can prolong our lives and our minds so that we can live long and fulfilling lives before it is time to go. Taking care of your body is the key element in making this happen. This is not limited to physical exercise and eating right as is often preached, but extends to taking care of your cognitive self as well- exercising and keeping your brain in top condition.
New research suggests that one way to keep the brain sharp is to take up a musical instrument (like taking piano lessons). This helps keep the brain running and can also be a fun leisurely activity at the same time. In today’s day and age, with a rising incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and the threat that that poses to our society, anything to stave off cognitive decline should be given some consideration. Music lessons even in childhood may lead to great value for the brain later in life- providing defense against memory loss, cognitive decline, and being able to better distinguish between spoken words.
Musical training has been shown to have a profound impact on the brain that lasts over time. It helps create new neural connections that can help improve communication within the brain which manifests as thinking and doing. The ability for change in the neural networks within our brain is the greatest when we are young and declines as we age, making the impact especially powerful at youth, but still important at middle or later age. This is a result of synaptic plasticity, an intriguing concept of how our brains grow and change, allowing us to adapt to life in order to survive.
Studies looking at brain properties of professional musicians show a large volume of grey matter compared to nonmusicians. Other studies have also seen differences in white matter between the two groups. The wide range of brain areas that playing an instrument touches on really leads to such a strong effect since it connects areas of the brain which would never otherwise have formed that link.
Research which looks further into how much music is important sows that the longer you played an instrument, the better the effect becomes. A particular study by Hanna-Pladdy showed that there were improvements in the groups who played more in visuospatial memory, naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information. This impact did not go away even after they stopped playing music- sometimes for decades! A second study by the same research group confirmed these findings and added that the effect does not depend on how much other education you receive in life (thereby addressing a potential confounder in the original conclusion).
Music is a great way to keep your brain active in a unique way and may have other positive mental impacts including serving as a relaxer and stress relief. It is worth trying it out if you haven’t already; your brain will thank you!
Image credit: Michael Simons