Playing a musical instrument as a child can help maintain cognitive functions for life

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This is evidenced by the results of a study conducted by scientists at the University of Edinburgh. They found an association between learning to play a musical instrument as a child and improved cognitive ability in later life. The nature of this link remains to be determined, but the team believes this pathway should be explored to understand why some people age “better” than others.

Several studies have already shown that learning music has a beneficial effect on a child’s intellectual abilities and his ability to concentrate. Playing a musical instrument also reduces stress and improves mood. The researchers wanted to test whether this training had a long-term effect. To do this, they compared the physical and mental abilities of more than 360 people, some of whom had played musical instruments as children or teenagers.

So they found a link between playing an instrument and improving cognitive abilities. Professor Ian Dirie, former director of the Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, however notes that he and his collaborators have not established any causal relationship. “However, as we and other scientists look for many small effects that may contribute to healthier brain aging in some people than others, these findings are noteworthy,” he told The Guardian.

Observing more than 70 years of history

Study participants were selected from the 1936 Lothian Birth Cohort, a group of people born in 1936 living in Edinburgh and Lothian who took part in the large Scottish Mental Health Study conducted in 1947. The goal of this cohort was to understand how the brain and thinking abilities develop throughout life.

These people have been tested for a range of physical and mental functions as they age. In particular, they were repeatedly subjected to a standard cognitive ability test, which they all passed at the age of 11; the latter included questions requiring verbal reasoning, spatial perception, and numerical analysis.

Cohort members who took the test again at age 70 were asked about their lifetime musical experience. Of the 366 participants in the study, 117 said they played musical instruments when they were young. The piano was the most common instrument, but other instruments such as accordion, bagpipes, guitar and violin were also mentioned.

Ian Dirie and colleagues then used statistical models to look for possible associations between playing a musical instrument in youth and the evolution of thinking skills throughout life. The models revealed new evidence that playing an instrument is associated with cognitive benefits: those with the most experience in the field performed best on the test.

Benefits independent of any socio-economic factors

Deary explains that these benefits are “small” but can be found throughout life. But most notably, improvements in cognition are seen regardless of socioeconomic status, years of schooling, initial cognitive ability (during childhood) and general health seen later in life.

“These results prove that mental activities, such as learning to play a musical instrument, may be associated with improved thinking skills,” said Judith Oakley, currently a professor of psychology at Napier University. Playing an instrument is indeed a complex cognitive task that simultaneously mobilizes multiple motor and sensory functions (sight, hearing and touch) as well as mental abilities such as attention and memory.

Several studies have also highlighted the mental health benefits of music. Because it requires a lot of concentration, learning the instrument can help improve your mood, including being an outlet for stress and anxiety. Moreover, playing the instrument is accompanied by the release of dopamine. Mastering a new song also helps boost your confidence and self-esteem. “Active music practice has been proven to be a source of improved social cohesion, enjoyment, personal development and empowerment,” emphasizes a study published in 2013 that examined the power of music in the lives of older people.

This new study suggests that tool learning preserves mental skills for long periods of time and therefore could be a new avenue of research to improve aging. In an environment where life expectancy is rapidly increasing, and with it the rate of cognitive impairment, it is important to identify levers that can prevent or at least slow the onset of cognitive impairment.


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