Listen up, amateur musicians! All those hours of practicing scales and learning to read music may pay off when you reach your golden years.
A tantalizing study published online April 4 in the American Psychological Association's journal Neuropsychology found that people who engage in instrumental musical activity for many years may build some protection against cognitive losses in their later years than those with fewer, or no, years of musical activity.
Researchers had 70 people ages 60 to 83 perform a variety of tests to measure visuospatial memory, ability to name objects, the brain's ability to adapt to new information and other aspects of cognition. They found that those who had engaged in musical activity for 10 years or longer scored substantially better than those with no musical activity in their past. There wasn't a big difference in skills between those who had played the longest and those who had played for fewer years. But the scores of those who had played for nine or fewer years fell between those of the two other groups. That suggests that the longer people play instruments, the more benefits they may derive.
Most of the musicians in the study named the piano as their primary instrument; woodwinds were the second most commonly played instruments. All were amateurs who had started playing when they were 10 years old. The study adjusted for physical fitness and education levels, each of which could contribute to protection against dementia. And, interestingly, the relationship between cognitive skills and years of musical activity held up whether the musicians were currently involved in making music or not.
The study points out that the areas in which the long-time music players scored best were the same ones in which people tend to suffer declines as they age and in which people with Alzheimer's dementia tend to have deficits. That suggests that musical activity could perhaps be enlisted as a means of delaying cognitive losses due to Alzheimer's. But the authors are careful to point out that their work only establishes an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship, between musical activity and cognition. Nor does this study determine just what it is about musical activity that might protect against dementia.
The study takes its place among a large and growing body of research investigating the relationship between activities that might bolster cognitive skills (among people of all ages) and even create a kind of cognitive reserve in the brain that could protect against losses from age-related dementia. It's theorized that such activities might actually alter the way the brain works, reshaping neural pathways in beneficial ways. Musical activity is a particularly promising research subject because it involves a combination of motor skills, reading musical notation, listening and repetitive action.
So, next time your kid complains about having to practice the piano, tell him that one of these days he may look back and thank you.